By David A. Rosenberg
Comparisons, as they say, are odious. So, how to handle the coincidence of two versions of “Krapp’s Last Tape,” one at Long Wharf, the other at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, both starring well-known actors?
In New Haven, Brian Dennehy shuffles his way through Samuel Beckett’s autobiographical, one-man work about the perils of nostalgia. Under Jennifer Tarver’s detailed direction, he’s very much the sad tramp-clown of silent movies, a figure Beckett always enjoyed. The Buster Keaton-Stan Laurel-Charlie Chaplin connection is palpable.
In Brooklyn, John Hurt, less decrepit, burrows into the soul of Krapp in a performance filled with regret and self-pity. Under Michael Colgan’s probing direction, the production from the Gate Theater of Dublin, is unfussy, interior and poignant.
Both work on their own, specific, individual levels.
In Beckett’s absurdist 1958 play, Krapp, 69, listens to a tape he made 30 years ago. It was the time of his mother’s death as well as of a significant interlude with a one-time lover. Both events were part of a “memorable equinox” when he suddenly saw what his life was like and would be.
The interlude was an afternoon spent with a nameless woman in a punt, “sun blazing down, bit of a breeze, water nice and lovely.” The failed, lonely writer that he has become cannot forget that moment of a lived life, certainly in contrast to a man now addicted to bananas and booze.
The short (one hour) evening consists almost entirely of Krapp at his table, with occasional moves offstage to pour himself a drink or fetch the ledger in which he’s written a description of the tapes he’s made over the years on his birthday. As such, the mood is elegiac and ethereal, a look into someone’s soul.
Dennehy is a big man, a tower whose fall into decrepitude borders on tragedy. When he finally speaks, recording his current thoughts, he boils over in anger, as if defending himself against the character’s sense of failure and the tyranny of memory. Dennehy is irascible and slightly dangerous.
Hurt, on the other hand, is a slight figure, grizzled and introverted. When he speaks, it’s with weary resignation at the retreating “chance of happiness,” which he says he wouldn’t want back. Enfolding the tape recorder as if protecting it from time, when Hurt gets to the tape’s final “Never knew such silence; the earth might be uninhabited,” the spheres turn and we glimpse mortality.
While the Dennehy-Tarver rendering is friskier than the more austere Hurt-Colgan one, both have their virtues. In the former, Krapp will surely go on to make more yearly tapes. In the latter, Krapp is finished; the tape he tries to make will be his last. They’re the two sides of what Beckett wrote elsewhere: “You must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.”