Monday, August 10, 2020

Harry Clarke: Breaking the Ice

Barrington Stage Company artistic director Julianne Boyd (left) with Mark H. Dold during rehearsal for Harry Clarke. (Courtesy Barrington Stage Company)

The mood at the Barrington Stage Company production of the solo performance Harry Clarke, which I saw over the weekend, was cautiously jubilant. As the ad campaign reminds us, this is the first live production in the United States since March, performed under a tent down the street from BSC’s home space in Pittsfield to a restricted, socially distanced audience that was ushered in slowly, temperatures taken at the door. The only unmasked people in the arena were on the stage: the artistic director, Julianne Boyd (who also directed the play), when she introduced the show with a speech – expected but not unwelcome – about the need for art in challenging times and reported that the company had put up the tent during the hurricane, and the actor, Mark H. Dold. I won’t underestimate how great it felt to be seeing live theatre again, whatever the special conditions may be under which it must be purveyed.

The English-born playwright, David Cale, normally writes for himself; Harry Clarke, which Billy Crudup performed in New York, is an exception. The protagonist is a man who spent his childhood in Illinois and Indiana but claims to have found his voice as a boy, when he began to speak in an English accent, to the intense irritation of his macho, violent father. When he moves to Manhattan, he’s following the dictates of that voice, and eventually, in addition to sounding English, he takes on the identity he made up as a boy: Harry Clarke. He becomes obsessed with Mark Schmidt, a wealthy, charismatic man he follows in the street and then happens to encounter in a bar a few months later. He uses what he’s learned about him through observation to forge a connection with him, conjures up a fictional London life to substitute for his drab one as a barista (he pretends to have spent twenty years as Sade’s personal assistant), and in a matter of hours becomes his confidant and his lover.  “Harry Clarke” allows him to become the star of his own life rather than a supporting player.

For about two-thirds of the eighty-minute running time, the play is creepy and intriguing. You can see the influence of Patricia Highsmith’s fiction and particularly The Talented Mr. Ripley. (When Harry ends up in bed with both Mark’s widowed mother and his dissatisfied sister, you begin to think of Pasolini’s Teorema too.) Harry, like Tom Ripley, is a portrait of the sociopath as a man in search of a self: part Woody Allen’s Zelig, part predator. But when Harry and Mark move in together, Mark decides to produce movies and his attraction to substances sends him off the deep end, the play loses its way. Cale may have intended Mark’s journey to mirror Harry’s – Mark, too, trades in an old self (he’s a heterosexual businessman when they meet) – but if so it’s a wayward comparison, because Mark isn’t literally making up an identity for himself. Either way the twist is a digression. Harry becomes, ironically, the more grounded of the two men – and the play is no longer a first-person thriller about a sociopath. Cale tries to gather up the threads at the end and get back to his original idea, but it’s too late.

Mark H. Dold works very hard and he’s not bad as he weaves in and out of Harry’s (already dual) character and those of the other figures in his story. Both his vocal and his physical shifts could be sharper, but the play is a very tricky proposition for an actor, and he holds the stage and the imagination of the audience. And it’s impossible to determine, without having read the text or seen Crudup play it, how much of the problems in shaping it are Cale’s and how much a combination of Dold’s and Boyd’s. But uneven as it is, Harry Clarke is certainly good enough to remind me how much I’ve missed live theatre since the pandemic and in especially how I’ve missed my usual summer treks up to the Berkshires to take advantage of the area’s usual range of offerings. It’s become customary for those in the performing arts to articulate our shared hope that live performance will return to us soon. As I walked out of that tent I felt it ardently. God bless Julianne Boyd.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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