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Billy Crudup in 'Harry Clarke': A deviously brilliant performance is reborn as an audiobook

Billy Crudup in 'Harry Clarke': A deviously brilliant performance is reborn as an audiobook
Billy Crudup in David Cale's "Harry Clarke." (Carol Rosegg)

One of the last performances I saw in 2017 was one of the sliest: Billy Crudup in David Cale's "Harry Clarke" at New York's Vineyard Theatre. I caught this off-Broadway solo work at the end of its run and regretted that I hadn't seen the show earlier to spread the word.

The sad thing about the theater is that when a production closes, it's gone forever. This premiere of "Harry Clarke," however, is going to have an afterlife that theater lovers far and wide can enjoy.

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Audible, Amazon's audio entertainment division, has recorded the production as an audiobook, which will be released on Jan. 23. Audio plays aren't my go-to pastime, but I'm convinced that "Harry Clarke" will be as intriguing via earbuds as it was to experience live at the Vineyard.

Cale, a veteran solo artist, made his name performing his own feverish character studies. But here the honors go to Crudup, and he dives deep into the puzzling heart of British bon vivant Harry Clarke, the alter ego of an insecure Midwestern straggler named Philip Brugglestein, who works as a barista in New York.

Philip is a fascinating case. Since he was a boy, he felt more comfortable speaking in a British accent. It used to enrage his gruff, homophobic father, who thought boys should be hoisting themselves onto tractors, not carrying on in the fluty cadences of an Oliver Twist turned BBC radio personality. The violent family quarrels that would ensue, however, only confirmed Philip in the truth that Harry Clarke was a better fit for his true self.

The play unfolds through Philip's point of view. He's our narrator, taking us through his bizarre adventures after moving to New York after his parents died — an orphan with a loose hold on reality and an even looser hold on morality.

The crux of the drama revolves around Philip's (or, actually, Harry's) relationship with Mark Schmidt, the scion of a wealthy family with identity issues all his own. Mark is drawn to Harry, who has wormed his way into his life. Neither understands the strange pull of the other, but it's irresistible — worryingly so.

As extroverted as Philip is introverted, Harry claims to have worked for years as the singer Sade's personal assistant. Mark tries to pass himself off as straight, but Philip knows better and, liberated by his wild boy British persona, he boldly seduces Mark on his parents' boat (christened the Jewish American Princess) before proceeding to other members of the Schmidt family, who are impressed by the Sade connection.

The yarn is a real corker, a polymorphously perverse tale of baffling motives and strangely poignant psychology. Philip turns out to be an adept con man, but he's as much a victim as a victimizer. Cale withholds judgment so that we can experience the events in all their flamboyant complexity.

The Vineyard production, directed by Leigh Silverman, was simply and elegantly staged around Crudup's cagey performance. It was impossible to pin Philip down, yet outside perspectives and insights kept slipping through as the other characters were brought to life in our narrator's vivid recap.

Sensational as the unfolding tale is, "Harry Clarke" is even more compelling in the interstices of the drama. There's an entire play in what lies unsaid between the characters, in the unspoken psychological dynamics that reveal the damage intolerant fathers can inflict on their unconventional sons.

"Harry Clarke" is the inaugural offering in an expanding set of theater initiatives by Audible, which recently announced a $5-million fund to commission and produce small-scale theatrical works that are ideally suited to the listening medium. Audio drama is poised for a major comeback.

Crudup's sneakily brilliant portrayal in Cale's twisting tale might tempt you to put the audiobook on repeat, if only to get to the root of Harry's, I mean Philip's, mystery.

Follow me @charlesmcnulty

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