Theater review by Helen Shaw
"I could always do an immaculate English accent," says the ingratiating Phil (Billy Crudup), standing in front of a blue sky. "I could be myself if I had an English accent." The narrator of David Cale's shaggy-dog thriller, Phil has left South Bend, Indiana, determined to live as a fake Brit. His first invented self gives way to another when he discovers an even naughtier Cockney voice inside him, and once that persona—the titular Harry Clarke—emerges, Cale’s knockoff Patricia Highsmith shenanigans are on. A family will be seduced, a fortune nobbled, sexual encounters enjoyed under false pretenses: This is this all according to Phil, standing in front of a wooden beach chair, his white trousers impeccable and his voice slightly incredulous. He's got no worries. We worry, though, for everyone he meets.
Cale has been known since the '90s for his slippery, sensitive solo fictions. He won an Obie in 1999 for Lillian, paving the way for first-person monodramas by the likes of Clay McLeod Chapman. Compared to Cale’s previous pieces, however, Harry Clarke is surprisingly thin. Somewhere along the way, Cale lost his delicacy at positioning the telling detail; they're slammed into place, like chess pieces placed by a bear. And there's something strangely dated about it, too. The play is set in a modern-day New York, but it's one where 40-year-old baristas live on the Upper East Side, whiling away their time checking answering machine messages. No one googles anybody. There's a recurring joke about the singer Sade.
Crudup has fire-hose charm and a naughty triangular grin; he's charismatic enough to sell water to a duck. But he hasn'tgot an immaculate English accent—oy, guv'nor, t'ain't even tidy. That shakes the play at its outset, and we're hungry for any time he speaks in his American voice, as he does when impersonating the various vulnerable fools that Phil meets in Manhattan. It's a pretty production; director Leigh Silverman makes its physical landscape feel like an escape. (Set designer Alexander Dodge and lighting designer Alan C. Edwards make the backdrop into a beautifully striated series of blues; sound designer Bart Fasbender gives us a muffled, at-a-distance world.) This dreaminess is appropriate. Cale, who also writes music, has structured the play like a border ballad; each encounter with his inner devil gives Phil a new stanza of erotic conquest. And so the piece,for all its faults, has just enough glamour to carry us along. As Harry tells us, sometimes even fake enchantment will do.
Vineyard Theatre (Off Broadway). By David Cale. Directed by Leigh Silverman. With Billy Crudup. Running time: 1hr 20mins. No intermission.
Note: After its fall run at the Vineyard Theatre, Harry Clarke is returning for an encore engagement at the Minetta Lane Theatre from March 7 through May 13, 2018.
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