Brian Dennehy needs no coddling from critics. A two-time Tony-winning heavyweight, he has nothing left to prove, having triumphed (through the blunt force of his acting) in Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” and Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman.”
Just when you think you understand the nature of his barreling blue-collar gifts, he turns around and surprises you with a delicate portrait of expiring gentility, as he did in his performance as the wistful, ailing Sorin in the recent film adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s “The Seagull.” His acting may be monochromatic, but it’s rarely dull. And attention must be paid to the intelligent ambition behind the talent.
Dennehy has brought to the Geffen Playhouse his traveling double bill of Eugene O’Neill’s “Hughie” and Samuel Beckett’s “Krapp’s Last Tape.” The production, which opened Wednesday at the intimate Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater under the direction of Steven Robman, isn’t the cheeriest of offerings.
I couldn’t help wondering if it was perhaps holiday counterprogramming to “A Christmas Carol,” which opened last week at the Geffen’s Gil Cates Theater. Epiphanies don’t lead to redemption in O’Neill and Beckett as they do in Charles Dickens. They only close the door and turn out the lights. But there is something invigorating about watching a veteran actor throw himself headlong into plays that make no concessions in their ruthless pursuit of darker truths.
“Krapp’s Last Tape” is the richer and more intricate of the two works, a perfect Beckettian marriage of form and content. But “Hughie” suits Dennehy better. He’s more in his element in O’Neill’s seedy milieu. American bluster and braggadocio come more naturally to him than Beckett’s gnomic shards.
Set in the lobby of a midtown Manhattan hotel where lost souls have retreated from respectability, “Hughie” revolves around a mostly one-way conversation between Dennehy’s character, “Erie” Smith, and the uncommunicative new night clerk (played by Joe Grifasi through Nov. 25, after which Armin Shimerman takes over the role). Unsteady, unshaven and in the process of unraveling, Erie is coming off a bender provoked by the death of the old night clerk, whose name (you guessed it) is Hughie.
When Hughie was alive, he was a captive audience for Erie, who would tell tall tales about crap game victories and chorus girl conquests. It was a game they’d play — Erie happily manufacturing the image of a big shot that answered some need in both Hughie and himself. Unable to admit the extent of his con, Erie distinguishes between lying and embellishing to the new clerk he’s trying out for Hughie’s role.
Forest Whitaker played Erie in the 2016 Broadway revival, which was somewhat more interested in the abstract meaning of the play than in its lived reality. Dennehy gives a more palpable sense of Erie’s state of hangover; you sense his temples throbbing and fear his explosive shifts in mood.
As Erie grows frustrated by the clerk’s seeming unwillingness to play along, Dennehy switches from hope to angry impatience to despair back to hope again — with total naturalness. Volatility becomes him. Erie is a character who relies on alternative fictions as a form of life support. Dennehy’s performance illuminates the mortal stakes in O’Neill’s modest yet haunting one-act.
“Krapp’s Last Tape” demands a better staging than the clumsy one provided by Robman. Beckett’s indelible play, about an old writer listening ruefully to his younger self on tape speculate on the progress of his career as love is abandoned, is a two-character drama between a man and his recorder.
The production, marred by Cricket S. Myers’ exaggerated sound design, has little truck with subtlety. A crucial tape sequence is bungled. The music that begins and ends the show, some kind of Celtic-sounding folk, should have Beckett’s estate firing off a threatening letter. And a bit involving a banana peel on the floor is blocked with no evident concern for audience sight lines.
Slapstick isn’t Dennehy’s strong suit, but there is something poignantly humorous in watching him cart his bulk across the stage in baggy cotton clown pants. (Beckett found endless drollery in physical decrepitude and bodily insubordination.)
Although Dennehy’s Krapp takes pleasure in the sound of words (the breathy “spool” bringing a child-like rapture), he’s not very convincing as a writer, failed or otherwise. John Hurt, who was magnificent in the role at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in 2012, was by contrast the image of a man turned into a husk after sacrificing everything for literary recognition that never arrived.
Dennehy’s performance deepens as Krapp relives the end of a romance. The meaning of the loss casts a pall. A lifeline was relinquished. Too old to cry, he can only laugh into the yawning abyss — a bitter, solitary cackle.
For O’Neill, human beings need pipe dreams to survive. For Beckett, pipe dreams are a pipe dream: Illusions are no defense against reality.
“Hughie & Krapp’s Last Tape,” a double-shot of desolation, aren’t meant to be yoked together. But Dennehy’s commanding stage presence charges the bill with theatrical significance even when the production falters.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
‘Hughie & Krapp’s Last Tape’
Where: Geffen Playhouse, Audrey Skirball Kenis Theatre, 10886 Le Conte Ave., L.A.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends Dec. 16
Information: (310) 208-5454 or geffenplayhouse.org