For their go at Krapp’s Last Tape at New Haven’s Long Wharf Theatre, Samuel Beckett’s economical-yet-all-encompassing 1958 one-act solo, Brian Dennehy and director Jennifer Tarver have done something the playwright considered verboten. They’ve embellished on him — and, more amazingly, have improved on him — in this 54-minute outing.
In his usually sacrosanct stage directions, Beckett calls for Krapp to peel and eat a banana before saying a word. When he’s finished chewing and swallowing, he has some business with the banana skin that requires him to slip on it and thereby provide a nice bit of spin on the old slipping-on-a-banana-skin sight gag.
Instead, Tarver — whose attention to detail is notable throughout — has Dennehy eat the banana and then fiddle with the skin, but revises the order of his slipping. The slight adjustment not only makes for an alarmingly funny sight gag but underlines even more than Beckett does his belief that man can never win the game of life he must play.
From his lumbering entrance through a door that helps define a darkened room Eugene Lee has designed, Dennehy commands attention. His white hair is disheveled and his clothes are shapeless and colorless. But perhaps most commandingly, his eyes, which he must squint to see, are tired. Above them, his white eyebrows resemble two shaggy caterpillars.
With a ceiling fixture the only illumination over the desk where he sits, the 69-year-old Krapp listens to a recording made when he was 39 and on which he ruminates on, among other things, his dying mother and a woman in his life. Referring to his younger-sounding self as “he” (Dennehy’s voice, of course), he interrupts that tape to record his reactions in the present. As Krapp completes these relatively straight-forward actions, Beckett says all that needs be said about everyman’s eventual acceptance of mortality.
Because Dennehy usually finds the opportunity to bellow no matter what part he takes on, this Krapp is something of a caterwauler. Nevertheless, Dennehy uses every moment to bring Krapp alive, comical and dignified — no more so than when he’s listened to his 39-year-old manifestation say of the passing years, “No, I wouldn’t want them back.” He makes indelible Beckett’s truth about the demanding wages of revisiting the past.
Sometimes Samuel Beckett is spare with his stage directions and sometimes so extremely explicit that all a responsive actor and director need do is follow instructions. This is precisely how John Hurt tackles the great playwright’s solo piece, Krapp’s Last Tape, now at BAM.
The production, directed by Michael Colgan, is a shining example of when a paint-by-numbers approach is recommended and why this treatment is a textbook example of honoring a play both amusing and devastating in its distillation of a man reviewing the confusions and disappointments of his life.
Indeed, the only noticeable change from Beckett’s scrupulous stage directions that Hurt makes is dropping a set of keys needed to open two drawers on the desk Beckett stipulates.
“Extraordinary silence this evening,” Krapp, looking back at 69, says on the tape he plays of his 39-year-old incarnation. Later he says twice and almost a third time “never knew such silence.” Hurt and Colgan also take these phrases as cues, making the most of Krapp’s silences from the very first prolonged one when the lights go up on Hurt simply staring into the middle distance.
Only after listening to himself as a younger man expatiate on several free-association subjects — incidentally, Hurt’s voice on this tape isn’t very different from his older voice — does Krapp blurt his opinion of himself as a younger man. He taunts himself with being a writer of less than modest awards.
Hurt, across whose lined face any number of additional unspoken thoughts have already played, erupts with uncontrollable control at his present and past selves. What makes Hurt, wearing hilariously squeaky shoes, especially effective as Krapp is that he’s an actor who has always looked older than his years and therefore more prematurely and painfully aware of life’s woes. That blend of age and youth works for this interpretation of a man terminally out of sorts with himself.