The title character in “Harry Clarke,” the solo show that Billy Crudup is performing at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, is a devilishly charismatic, jet-setting Londoner who charms the pants off the members of a wealthy New York family. He’s also a sham.
Clarke is actually Philip Brugglestein, an insecure guy from the Midwest who works in a coffee shop in New York City, and stage and screen star Crudup deftly juggles these two personas as well as 17 other characters in this dizzying yarn written by renowned solo performer David Cale.
“It’s part charm show, it’s part thrill ride, and then it’s a claustrophobic attack in the style of film noir,” says Crudup. “And you just don’t see that very much in the theater.”
A Tony Award-winning stage actor (“The Coast of Utopia,” “The Elephant Man,” “Arcadia”), Crudup is also famous for his starring screen roles in films such as “Almost Famous,” “Big Fish” and “Watchmen” and the TV series “Gypsy,” “The Morning Show” and “Hello Tomorrow!”
As performed by Crudup and directed by Leigh Silverman, the play debuted to thunderous acclaim off-Broadway at the Vineyard Theatre in 2017 and then returned the following year for another off-Broadway engagement at the Minetta Lane Theatre.
“It’s a great piece of writing, and the idea of being someone who is powerless in the world and takes on the persona of someone who is without a worry is a kind of wish fulfillment that I imagine we all would like to experience,” says Silverman. “What would it be like if we could shed our own hang-ups and move through the world with the grace and ease of a Harry Clarke? The seduction of that is, I think, really irresistible.”
“Harry Clarke” is Crudup’s first solo show. When Vineyard Theatre co-artistic director Douglas Aibel first sent him the script, Crudup recalls, “I looked at this, and it was 48 pages of one person talking, and I thought, are you out of your mind? Who wants to do that? And then I tried to go to sleep, woke up in the middle of the night. Almost all of my friends are actors, and the fact is, nobody gets an opportunity like this to open a brand-new solo performance in New York City. And I thought, if you don’t do this when other people imagine that you can, you’re being a baby. So get up off your butt and get to work. And it became one of the more rewarding experiences I’ve had in the theater in my career. It was also the most uncomfortable and demanding.”
“He’s an amazing actor,” Silverman says. “He has the unique ability to play both a high-status person and a low-status person simultaneously. He really understands both sides of the Harry Clarke character and has the ability to play a scared, timid, abused, freaked-out, essentially invisible person, and then the alter ego that that kind of person would create. And also just the ability to hold an audience. I frequently refer to Billy as like a charm bomb.”
This is a return to Berkeley Rep for Crudup, having costarred with Sirs Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart and Shuler Hensley in Harold Pinter’s “No Man’s Land” there in 2013 before taking it to Broadway in repertory with the same cast in Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot.”
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Director Silverman also has history with Berkeley Rep, where she directed Lisa Kron’s “In the Wake” and David Henry Hwang’s “Chinglish.” This year she worked as a creative consultant for Berkeley Rep’s new play lab the Ground Floor, helping select the projects to be developed there over the summer (including a new piece by Cale). As a director, Silverman was involved in the very first year of the Ground Floor in 2012, working with playwright Madeleine George on “The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence.”
Returning to the play five years later has been a formidable challenge, but it’s one that Crudup relishes.
“I’ve done theater all of my life, and actually because of this play I had the opportunity to work on two television shows, but that has subsequently kept me out of the theater,” he says. “I’m well aware that if you don’t keep the muscles going, they will atrophy, and I haven’t found a better piece to build up the muscles than this one. So part of it has been putting on a well-worn jacket you love, and the other part of it is realizing that it’s a straitjacket. You’re destined for the mental hospital because of the claustrophobia that comes from getting into this world. But once you embark on this story, the rigor of it takes over. You can’t have any moments of reluctance or insecurity.”
“Doing something for the third time five years later, we’re just different people and different artists,” Silverman says. “Billy’s had a massive television career in the last five years. I’ve done a number of plays and musicals, and I’ve worked on another play of David Cale’s in the meantime. When we agreed to revisit it, Billy said, ‘I never felt like I really got a couple of the characters. I feel like I could do a better job, and I really want to reinvestigate.’ That is the dream, working with an actor that is just as interested and curious in the play as you are and as rigorous in the work and just wants to keep making it better.”
Contact Sam Hurwitt at email@example.com, and follow him at Twitter.com/shurwitt.
By David Cale, presented by Berkeley Repertory Theatre
When: Nov. 15-Dec. 23
Where: Berkeley Rep’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley
Tickets: $22.50-$134; 510-647-2949, www.berkeleyrep.org