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Thanks to its well-received run at the Vineyard in fall 2017, Harry Clarke has transferred to the Minetta Lane Theatre through May 13, 2018.
Why David Cale was happy to let someone else star in his new solo show Harry Clarke
Veteran playwright and performer David Cale is known for his genre-defying solo shows, notably The Redthroats at Second Stage Theatre, A Likely Story at the New Group, and his Obie Award-winning Lillian at Playwrights Horizons. So when he began developing his latest one-man play, Harry Clarke, he initially planned to star in it himself. He did workshops at Pittsburgh's Andy Warhol Museum in 2013 and Off-Off Broadway's Dixon Place the following year. But then he had a realization. "I had a feeling that somebody else should perform it," says Cale, who hails from Britain. "At first I was playing with people's perception of me. The opening line is: 'I could always do an immaculate English accent,' but some people in the audience wouldn't know me or my work. Then it really left that and became about this character. I thought somebody else could take it further."
Cale always has a lot going on: In addition to his solo shows, he's a stage and screen actor for hire as well as an accomplished songwriter whose work has been performed by Elvis Costello and Debbie Harry. So he put Harry Clarke aside for a few years. But when the Vineyard Theatre emailed him over the summer asking if he had anything ready to go into production, he sent in the script. Now, just a few months later, Harry Clarke is kicking off the Vineyard's 35th anniversary season with Tony winner Billy Crudup in the title role.
A sexually charged and darkly comic thriller about a meek Midwesterner who reinvents himself as a confident cockney stud, Harry Clarke marks a lot of firsts. It's the first time Cale and Tony-nominated director Leigh Silverman have worked at the Vineyard. It's the inaugural theatrical venture by digital spoken-word entertainment company Audible.com, which will record and produce Crudup's performance as an audio play for download in early 2018. And it's the first time Cale has written a show he's not also acting in.
That last one has been a bit of an adjustment. "The first Saturday of the run, all morning I was gearing myself up for doing two shows," says Cale. "I had to remind myself, you're not performing; Billy's doing it!" Not to imply Cale's unhappy with Crudup's performance. On the contrary: "Watching him has been very instructive in terms of acting. I feel like I'm observing a master class. I've never been trained as an actor; I've just learned by doing it. I thought originally Billy could do it in New York and I could do it somewhere else, but now I'm not going to. It's too definitive a performance."
In the show, Crudup plays Philip Brugglestein of South Bend, Indiana, who moves to New York City after an unhappy childhood and reinvents himself as an Englishman. But it's not until the magnetic Harry Clarke suddenly bursts out of him that he embraces his immorality, manipulating a well-to-do family into giving him everything he wants. Crudup channels myriad characters in the one-act play, including Philip's dead parents and Harry Clarke's many conquests, switching from one role to the next with distinct changes in voice and physicality in a tour-de-force turn.
Though the play is a fiction influenced by the "film noirs and old thrillers" Cale loves, he admits he once knew a man named Harry Clarke. "We worked together in a record store in London in the '70s," the playwright says. "This guy was sort of everything I wasn't: He was very, very cool and nothing really fazed him. He was handsome and sexy and charismatic. He would get away with anything he wanted to."
But the similarities end there. Harry Clarke is no biography -- it's a seductive meditation on identity with a protagonist you root for, even when he's doing wrong. As Cale says, "He behaves atrociously," and yet it's hard to resist his spell.
Top image: Billy Crudup in Harry Clarke. Photos by Carol Rosegg.