As the famous song lyric goes “Regrets, I’ve had a few” succinctly sums up a less than satisfactory reflection on life passed. Now until August 31, the Stratford Shakespeare Festival offers two compelling hours crafted by a pair of playwrights whose real-life complaints would make Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” signature song seem positively euphoric in comparison.
Fortune smiles brightly on these one-act personal gems due to the incredibly versatile (appearing as the King of France in All’s Well That Ends Well the previous evening), sympathetic and introspective way that Brian Dennehy brings Erie Smith to life (Eugene O’Neill’s largely autobiographical Hughie) and existence-weary Krapp to imminent death (Samuel Beckett’s monologue with the past, Krapp’s Last Tape).
Both plays have another voice: in the opener, the perhaps not so coincidentally named Charles Hughes (played with appropriate dullness if not the richly written daydreams by Joe Grifasi) and the annual taped state-of-myself address which allows the aging Krapp to relive select moments through his own recorded speech three decades earlier—not even Facebook can match that electronic feat.
The coincidence that both plays had their world premières in 1958 is not the only link between these fascinating works. The notion of taking crap permeates the evening. Smith is a sometimes lucky gambler but following the death of Hughie (the previous night clerk of the broken-down Broadway hotel), he hasn’t won a dime. Beckett’s character cannot get beyond a lost love (frequently replaying “I lay down across her with my face in her breasts and my hand on her.”); the bitter writer has only sold seventeen books over his career. Smith shoots craps for a living; Krapp wallows in it like slow-motion quicksand.
The wordless first minutes of Krapp’s Last Tape (where the term genius would not be over-stating Dennehy’s gifts for timing and mute communication: his eyes tell more than the script ever can) oddly focus on a pair of fresh bananas—locked away in the failed author’s writing-desk drawer. Over on the Great White Way it’s a pair of dice that lure the boaster’s hands to the possibility of success or serve as an ice breaker when desperately seeking a friend.
At 3:00 a.m., the perpetually vacant-looking clerk has much in common with the living dead “… his blank brown eyes contain no discernible expression. One would say they had even forgotten how it feels to be bored.” Staggering back into the grubby lobby following a mammoth bender (which began immediately after Hughie’s sparsely attended funeral), Smith plies story after story on the replacement in hopes that he will be as attentive, gullible and respectful as the dearly departed. But Hughes can’t abide his own miserable world (“I’ve always been a night clerk.”) much less live vicariously through Smith’s. The possibility of conversation with a new cheerleader soon turns into an ever angrier monologue about what could have been. Krapp has the distinct advantage of knowing his life’s tapes so well, that he can fast forward over the sections that convict him of failed philosophy or errant choices. He constructs his selective memory, but can’t escape the present-day reality of undeniable despair. Smith’s stories (largely of big wins and blondes bedded) are heartily and steadily regaled—they’ve been told so often they might as well be etched in stone.
Vice looms large in both worlds. Every few minutes, Krapp disappears to a back room. The sounds of cork popping, liquid spilling into a tumbler then a deeply satisfied guffaw bring much merriment to the audience—after all, it’s his birthday. But the frequent guzzler seems bent on drowning his misery in the constant companion of the bottle; his tear ducts have long gone arid. Of course, Smith’s crutch is his vocation. Living off the avails of luck (and running a few “errands” for the more successful criminal element of New York) is an addiction fueled by the promise of another long shot taking the daily double or a full house replenishing the coffers. But losing his legendary touch (just ask him) following the too-soon passing of his straight man is akin to Krapp running out of liquor. Staring into the face of self is too scary to contemplate alone.
Thank goodness for denialism. Both men know that “And now, the end is near; And so I face the final curtain.” No worries. Smith makes a bet with his own money and wins! Krapp, with edited hindsight, doesn’t wish any of his potentially happy days back, even as he cannot let the memory of what might have been vanish. Seeing Dennehy at the top of his game, living these miserable creatures is an event not to be missed. JWR