Michael Laurence in Krapp, 39
(© Dixie Sheridan)
Michael Laurence in Krapp, 39
(© Dixie Sheridan)
Birthdays are a time when people reflect on what they have and haven't achieved, a fact that's reinforced by Michael Laurence's often fascinating solo show Krapp, 39, now at the SoHo Playhouse, in which the actor-author riffs on Samuel Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape, in which an elderly man on his 69th birthday sits at a desk and reflects on a tape-recording he made 30 years ago to the day. In this multimedia piece, first seen at last year's New York International Fringe Festival, Laurence imagines creating a tape similar to the one Krapp made on the event of his own 39th birthday. After creating his own archival recording, Laurence imagines that he will also seal it away and then perform it in 30 years.

In his efforts to shape his piece, Laurence has assembled a wide range of materials: there are journal entries from previous birthdays dating back 20 years, an unearthed message from an answering machine from his dead mother, and -- to enhance the ironic quotient of the piece -- phone conversations with his capable director, George Demas, who has no problems expressing his uncertainty about Laurence's plans.

Early on, theatergoers see Laurence -- a tall stick of a man with longish hair that borders on being a disheveled mane -- speak with a minimum of emotion into a webcam with his back to the audience. Soon, it becomes difficult not to wonder if the qualms expressed in the taped phone calls might not be on target. But slowly, the piece turns into a rich and brutally honest examination of a life at mid-point. Laurence exposes his insecurities about his life as an artist, in both dramatic and humorous ways. (The letters from fifth-graders who saw him read portions of Beckett's work are priceless.) He expresses deep-seated envy of Jason, a friend and actor, whose performance as Beckett's Krapp has inspired the play.

Moreover, Laurence's relationships -- both successes and failures -- are part of the mix, as is his drinking, which seems to result in a lot of birthday hangovers. Indeed, the actor's behavior on his 30th birthday make up what might be the most eloquent and compelling section of the play, as a breakup with a girlfriend, a panic attack, and a jaunt to a peep show converge in unexpected and beautifully poetic ways. Not surprisingly, it's during this sequence that Laurence's often-deadpan delivery becomes more animated.

Not all of the work, though, is as successful as this section. For instance, Laurence's use of a hand-held video camera to document the items on his desk seems unnecessary and the sequence overdrawn. Also, Laurence's framing device -- letters to and from representatives of Beckett's estate -- proves to be a double-edged sword, dramaturgically. On one hand, the correspondence is a frustrating red herring, and at the same time, it's a rather grand tribute to the sort of waiting game that so many of Beckett's characters play.