Billy Crudup has built a career playing charming rogues in films like Almost Famous, Eat Pray Love, and last year’s 20th Century Women. It makes perfect sense when his character is revealed as (11-year-old spoiler alert!) the real villain of Mission: Impossible III because Crudup is credible as both hero and villain; there’s always a hint of psychosis underpinning his boy-next-door looks. He’s indulged this duality in his stage roles as well (The Elephant Man, The Pillowman, The Coast of Utopia), but none has exploited the dark under his light as successfully as Harry Clarke, David Cale’s new one-man show at Vineyard Theatre.
“One-man show” actually feels like a bit of a misnomer. Though Crudup is the only actor on stage, his character, Philip Brugglestein, is a man divided. He’s from South Bend, Ind., but speaks with a British accent that emerged when he was a child as both a manifestation of his gay identity and shield against his homophobic father. It may not be his “real” accent, but he only feels genuinely himself when using it.
His double life, if indeed that’s what it is, becomes a triple life when he follows a man named Mark Schmidt one day on a whim. When he later sees that man at the theater, he introduces himself extemporaneously as cockney Harry Clarke. The character of Harry was one that Philip had always performed for himself, but, for reasons he barely understands, he forms a friendship with Mark and insinuates himself into his aristocratic family on the back of a counterfeit charisma and an invented history as the pop singer Sade’s tour manager/personal assistant. Harry begins to take over his life like Mr. Hyde, but he’s having too much fun to stop. “Why is that when I’m myself I’m so fearful all the time,” he asks, “but when I’m Harry Clarke I don’t give a shit? I’m absolutely, exhilaratingly, alarmingly, free.”
Philip is obsessed with movies, especially film noirs and thrillers, and seems to have pieced together all of his identities, both “real” and “fake,” from them. He idolizes the retired British gangsters living the high life in Spain in Sexy Beast. His social climber wouldn’t be out of place in Six Degrees of Separation or in Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan. He’s part Tom Ripley (probably Alain Delon from Purple Noon, not Matt Damon, if you were to ask), getting an erotic charge from seeing how the other half lives while drawing Mark slowly out of the closet, and part Terence Stamp from Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Teorema, sleeping his way through the Schmidt family and acting as a blank canvas onto which they project their own fears and biases. He’s whatever they need him to be, because he has no idea what or who he is.
Crudup has an absolute blast with the role. His personality is so winning and his delivery so still and controlled that one can’t help but wish the best for his anti-hero, no matter how sordid or unethical his actions. Crudup pivots between the accents of Philip and the other characters in his story with such fluidity that it’s often difficult to remember who is speaking. There are larger points to be made as well, about the identities we manufacture, especially for those whom we think can give us a leg up. The play’s wicked joke is that the Schmidts, who have everything, warm to Harry, who has nothing, because they think he can introduce them to Sade. There’s more than a little wish fulfillment in watching Philip work the system to his advantage.
Leigh Silverman’s just-the-facts-ma’am direction, Alexander Dodge’s bare patio set (which ably evokes everything from a boat deck to the Seychelles islands), and Alan C. Edwards’s gorgeously expressive lights each burnish Cale’s story without overwhelming it. If the whole venture ends up feeling a bit unsubstantial, that’s largely the result of telling a grifter’s story. It could also be that Cale, a monologuist in the tradition of Spalding Gray and Eric Bogosian, and a London native himself, usually performs his own work. There are moments of connection, eroticism, and real human feeling throughout, but the trouble with Harry is that one can never quite shake the feeling of being led down the garden path.
Manipulation can be fun when there’s the promised reward of a magic trick at the end, but the audience leaves Harry Clarke with the same thing Philip Brugglestein sees in the mirror: not much of anything. Crudup’s embodiment of the role, though, is a small miracle, and it feels churlish to ask for more. His performance is being preserved for distribution through Audible, meaning that one will be able to follow Harry down the rabbit hole of identity over and over again.
David Cale’s Harry Clarke plays through Dec. 23 at the Vineyard Theatre (108 E. 15th St.). Evening performances are at 7 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, and at 8 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Matinees are at 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. For tickets, call (212) 353-0303 or visit vineyardtheatre.org.