BILLY IS NO LONGER A KID: THE MATURE ARTISTRY OF BILLY CRUDUP

Akimbohunk.

David Cale’s one-person multi-character play Harry Clarke, directed by Leigh Silverman and starring Billy Crudup in a tour-de-force performance, has recently moved from the Vineyard Theatre to an off-Broadway run at the Minetta Lane Theatre.  The move was enabled in large part by Audible which has also recorded the show as part of its theatrical venture.

Harry Clarke is a kind of The Talented Mr. Ripley-Believe-It-Or-Not told in Cale’s seductively circuitous way with words.  It is the story of Philip Brugglestein whose Illinois sissy childhood is one fractured emotionally but one he survives by creating a Cockney character for himself that later morphs into the insouciant Harry Clarke when he moves to New York City and into the orbit of those who are charmed by Harry’s insouciance  – as is Philip himself.  The fractured childhood gives way to a kind of adulthood of refraction that is itself mirrored in Cale’s play as Crudup as Philip and Harry are both seen through the finely wrought other characters he portrays in the play with which they intersect.  It is that emotional intersection that is both so dizzyingly dramatic as well as keenly delineated with a kind of diabolical precision because of Crudup’s theatrical genius.  It is a funhouse mirror of a play and a performance that is deeply felt even as it is displayed before us with such a deft and even light touch.  It is mesmerizing to behold as we are confronted with questions of the mutability of character (not just characterizations), the mutability of sexuality, and moreover the mutability of morality itself.

I met Crudup recently at a The Smile on Bond Street in Manhattan.  I couldn’t help but think about Harry Clarke himself when Crudup bounded in, for Clarke’s sly smile, as Crudup portrays him, is his insouciant, surly bond.  It is Crudup’s too though there is nothing insouciant or surly about it.  It is, in fact, rather sweet.

KEVIN SESSUMS:  Some people don’t exactly come alive onstage but seem simply to live there.  I call them stage creatures. You’re a stage creature, Crudup.   Those of us in the audience relax in our seats when we are in your presence.  We aren’t nervous for you as an actor.  We know that you know what you’re doing.  There is a relaxation onstage and off when a stage creature like you is in the house honing his art up there.

BILLY CRUDUP:  Thank you.  That is so nice to hear. 

KS:  I’m such a theatre geek.  I went to the opening of Angels in America two days ago and am going back tomorrow to see it again on my birthday.  You’d be a great Roy Cohn in a few years.

BC:  I can’t wait to see this new production.  You know they workshopped that at NYU while I was there.  They were doing Angels at Juilliard but they were doing Perestroika at NYU.  I saw Ben Shenkman do Roy Cohn in that and I thought, man, I’ll never do anything like that.  He was so phenomenal even as a kid.  It’s a phenomenal part.

KS:  Nathan Lane is great as Cohn in this production even though in that first scene with all the phones going off it comes off a bit like Max Bialystock in The Producers.  I don’t blame him though. That’s not his fault. That’s the way that Tony Kushner wrote the scene.  Nathan settles into the role after that first frantic scene and is deeply moving and tragic in it.  Andrew Garfield though is on a whole other plane as Prior Walter.

BC:  He’s a remarkable actor. 

Crudup in Pinter’s “No Man’s Land” at Berkeley Rep

KS:  Some people think he’s bit much in it but I think what he is doing is deeply  textual in that he manifests Tony’s text in the way Tony writes with all those flourishes of intellectual floridity but with a seam of simple truth shot through it all.  It’s Callas-like but then again Tony kind of writes like Callas sang.   They’re doing a production of Angels at Berkeley Rep as well and Stephen Spinella who played Prior originally on Broadway is playing Roy Cohn in that production.  You have a history yourself with Berkeley Rep when you did Pinter’s No Man’s Land there with Ian McKellen as Spooner and Patrick Stewart as Hirst.  You played Hirst’s menacing secretary.

BC:  I’d always wanted to work at Berkeley Rep.  It’s such a great theatre and a great town for supporting art – the whole Bay Area is. Those audiences were really attuned to Pinter’s art – which is not the easiest.   They were so smart.

KS:  Once that production made it Broadway it was paired in repertory with Beckett’s Waiting for Godot in which you played the slave Lucky.  How did Pinter and Beckett inform your work in Cale’s Harry Clarke?  Lucky has no lines until he has the one that has 700 words in a nonsensical sentence.

BC:  Exactly.  In that sense, I’d say that textually they are very similar parts in so far as the writing leaves a great deal to your interpretation and to the interpretation of the production.  One of the great things about playing Pinter is that he gives you so many opportunities to explore your point of view about how these people are relating and what the event actually is.  And with that Lucky monologue, it is up to you as the actor to find where that stream of consciousness comes from.  Beckett doesn’t give you a lot of hints about that kind of eruption coming from someone  who has been that accommodating for all of the play.  To that end, both Pinter and Beckett are quite cerebral in trying to understand them.  One of the things we tried to do with Lucky was  a kind of physicalized journey of oppression.  We wanted to see how far we could take someone being beaten down.  We wanted the audience at a certain point to really recoil from the appearance of Lucky.  Because I think that is one of the things that Beckett is after and that is that you oppress people and then you discard them because you can’t view  the oppression.

KS:  Sort of like God Himself or Herself.

BC:  There you go.  Exactly.

KS:  Or maybe it is God Themselves since I think God must be gender-fluid.

BC:  Yes, God could be many incarnations.    The interesting thing about doing those parts, even though they were supporting ones, was that it was such a grueling schedule.  I think we were all together for nine months between Berkeley and then pairing the Pinter with Godot on Broadway.  I was tired enough from it all that I didn’t even approach any theatre material for a while.  And I usually get pretty itchy after a year.   And three years had passed before I took this on.  So what happened by taking that much time off from the stage, it left me really hungry.  When I was sent this script for Harry Clarke my first response was of-course-not; this seemed like a ludicrous idea.  But then whatever that engine is that keeps drawing me back to the theatre got activated. This was a singular opportunity.

KS:  The Pinter and Beckett repertory experience was so much about being in a company of actors and sharing the space with them.  To go from that to this as your next theatrical outing must have been extra daunting.   There is always a collaboration with a director and a playwright in any rehearsal process but in a one-person show there is a sense of having to channel that collaboration in ways that do not come into play with a cast filled with other actors.  It is almost as if the audience each night by default becomes your scene partner.

Crudup as Lucky in “Waiting for Godot.”

BC: There’s no question.  The audience is one hundred percent my scene partner.  Leigh Silverman articulated that early on very clearly.   I didn’t quite understand it as a theatrical event – what a one-person show is.  The people who write and perform them almost universally take that for granted.  You ask them who the audience is and they say they are the people who come to the theatre to see it tonight.  That is not how I think of acting.  I don’t think of my character as being at The Vineyard Theatre or the Minetta Lane.   So where is he?   And who is he talking to?  This became a central part of our collaboration.  Add to that, that David’s writing in this particular setting is not only narration and storytelling but then scenes erupt which imply that they could be rendered and you could actually play both sides of them.  On top of that, the narrator then changes and alters his persona to the audience.  All of that is quite a complex theatrical vocabulary so if you don’t have an agreement with your director and your playwright then there is just no way to approach it.   Truthfully, what I’m doing up there is I am interpreting Leigh’s idea of David’s work.   We all kind of triangulated trying to understand what the work is. 

KS:  When you came in this restaurant today to talk to me were you Philip or Harry?  Were you the real Billy or the Billy who presents himself as “Billy”?

BC:  Most of the actors I know leave their Harrys at work. 

KS:  And yet talking to me is part of your work, if not your art.

Crudup in “Harry Clarke.”

BC:  You know, I enjoy talking about acting and the theatre and the creation of art and I don’t think of conversations like this as work.   I do think of press junkets when you sit in the same place and someone comes in every two minutes and asks you the same questions – that’s hardcore work.  Because all they want is something click-y they can blast out.  But when you’re sitting here talking to someone who is interested in the theatre and the process, those are things that are very close to me so I don’t have to muster up any kind of special energy.  This is what I talk about with my friends all the time anyway.  We are invested in this art form and have been for a long time now.  And also we’re all arriving at different points in our lives now.  We are no longer the young ones coming up.   The renegades.

KS:  You still read young onstage but you’re about to be 50.

BC:  I’m in the veteran phase now.  As you said before, the Roy Cohn kind of parts are beginning to come up.  And you begin to think of yourself differently.  But we had this instilled in us early at NYU by Ron Van Lieu and other acting teachers there – if you don’t have some sort of self-awareness of your instrument, meaning your mind and your body and your voice, you’re not going to be able to modulate your career over a long period of time.  If you’re stuck in the same idea then you’re going to be stuck in the same kind of work.  If you want to evolve – and the people I always admired did do that – then that seemed like something to aspire to. 

Crudup in “Harry Clarke.”

KS: If you want to evolve you have to evolve in your awareness of your evolving instrument – which is an artistic way, I guess,  of saying “you still read young onstage but you’re about to be 50.” I sat next to Mark Wing-Davey last night at Joe’s Pub.  We were there to see Todd Almond’s concert.  Mark runs the program at NYU.

BC:  He was one of the teachers when I was there.  He wasn’t running it yet.  But I just got an email from him this morning telling me he’s bringing twenty NYU students to see Harry Clarke next week.

KS:  I like a good Heightened Coincidence.  Here’s another one.   I love John Keats.  I was trying to remember a line of his Eve of St. Agnes which kind of describes the use of music in Harry Clarke.  The sound design for the play by Bart Fasbender is phenomenal as is the lighting design by Alan Edwards.  So I Googled the poem and found it: “the music, yearning like a God in pain.”  That’s what the music in Cale’s play reminded me of.  But when I found it online I also found some stain glass images of St. Agnes that were done by an artist named – ready? – Harry Clarke.

BC:  That.  Is.  Un.  Real.  Wow

KS:  I call that getting in the research zone just as actors and artists have to find a zone when they are working.  How did you find the zone for this role and this production since there are just so many words to keep in your head and in the right order?  How does it not come out like Lucky’s squawking, “quaquauquaquaqua …” in Waiting for Godot?

BC:  This play requires something different.  My typical trajectory of attacking a piece a material for the theatre is comprehension first, collaboration, physical preparation, and then the execution is when you forget things and just allow it to happen.  The reason you can do that is that you are collaborating with other people in real time and the audience typically defines the level of immediacy so that you want to participate in something that feels alive even though you’ve already collaborated on everything very precisely.  With this – because Leigh and I envisioned it and David has written it as a thriller that has a certain kind of cinematic conformance  – there is a driving force that stays ahead of the audience just enough that keeps them anticipating what is going to happen.  Because of that I have to stay on top of it and I can’t let go.  It’s a different kind of experience.  Usually my experience on the stage is about relaxation – relax your expectations of yourself, relax the expectations of the audience – and play moment-to-moment.  With this, when I am standing backstage waiting to go on all I am thinking is that Philip has an 80-minute story to tell and he has to tell every single bit of it.  When I get offstage each night I’m so mentally exhausted by what I’ve just done that I go home and I will just sit and stare at my silverware drawer and go, okay, I know one is a fork and one is spoon but, fuck it,  I’ll just use my hands. 

KS:  This is a play about seduction on many levels just as you as an actor are seducing us with the story you are telling.  Yours is a seductive performance about a man who seduces both himself with a different persona as well as those who come in contact with him as this other person.  And yet there is a bit of a malignant narcissist about him too – that seduction, the lying, the ensuing chaos, and the gas lighting. 

BC:   Such characters are great for thrillers.  That’s why they are so often characters in them – especially that gas lighting aspect of them.  There is a point of view as well in this play – which we are trying to make tantalizing enough – which is that Philip became so oppressed by the lack of acceptance for however he behaved when he was a child that it left him disconnected from the world and, in fact, Harry is a savior for him because he allows him the opportunity to be in the world.  Moreover, each of the people he interacts with he is using his empathy for their own need and disconnection in order to engage  them in the world.  So there is point of view that we have about it that Harry is kind of heroic.  Yes, there is wreckage in some areas.  But what Harry has given the two characters of Stephanie and Mark is an opportunity to live life more vibrantly even if it is a con job. 

KS:  Do you think if Philip has found the graduate acting program at NYU that it would have helped him better integrate himself in the world?

BC:  It’s funny. Harry doesn’t seem to be a manifestation of Philip’s inhibitions but a manifestation instead of his needs.  So I don’t know if he had a compos  mentis way of managing to get the right kind of help.  Philip doesn’t seem to be a self-aware person at all which allows for the opportunity for this other persona. 

KS:  But he’s not Sybil.

BC:  No, not at all.

KS:  So there must be some sort of self-awareness there.

BC:  It’s more like, Oh, my God I can’t believe I’m doing this! As opposed to I  feel as if I’m about to do something again that’s going to be disruptive so I’m not going to do that. 

KS:  I’m a recovering addict.  There is the subplot in  the play about drug addiction but on another level Philip is addicted to being Harry. 

BC:  No question.  You know the play is a memory play.  So he’s recovered from this stage of his life whatever it was and he’s sharing it with others

Crudup in “Harry Clarke.”

KS:  There is something called a qualification when someone gets up in  front of room and shares the experience, strength and hope of their story.  And there were moments of watching this play when I thought, shit, this is like listening to a really great qualification.

BC:  Usually – most frequently – I come out of the theatre with this play, put my hat on, and run home.  Usually because I am filled with an overwhelming sense of shame.   I have a friend in recovery who said what I was feeling was share-shame which some people can get after they share in a recovery meeting and then recoil from having exposed so much.  I feel that having performed this some nights.   But I think Philip feels it too because although he feels gratified that he’s gotten it all off his chest he’s also feeling a little bit lost.   Even though this was his mission of how he navigated through his adult life is thrilling, hilarious, and horrifying.   But one of the main things I responded to from David’s point of view as the playwright was his sense of the humane.  David has a vision – a wide-field view – of what is humane and what is comprehensible. I guess I tend to share that point of view.  And I try very much to walk the edge of letting the audience be seduced by the behavior and understand the need and the desire to connect.  When Philip says that he suddenly felt as if he were on a ride and he couldn’t get off, you don’t want the audience to go, shame on you. 

KS:  We’ve all fucked people we don’t like.  We’ll, I have.   But that is sort of what it’s like sitting in the audience for this play.  We get why people keep wanting to fuck this guy and fall for him though we are realizing he’s not that likable even though he is seductive.

BC:  Yeah, yeah, yeah.

KS:  Maybe he’s even seductive because he’s not likable.   Hell, sometimes those are the best fucks, fucking somebody you don’t like.

BC:  And there’s no question he’s going to be a lot of fun.

KS:  Yeah.  You’re a very physical actor.  You are in this production and yet it seems quite pared down to an almost austere extent – a finger movement alone can connote a character. It’s all rather Merce Cunningham in its way.    There is a sculptural aspect to the movement.  Minimal.  The characters are being sculpted in front of us not only with the lighting design but with the way you physicalize them.

BC:  We came to that almost intuitively in the telling of it. 

KS:  Now that you’ve made an Audible book version of the play – Audible has even been instrumental in producing the move to the Minetta Lane from The Vineyard – you have stripped it down even more to your voice alone. 

BC:  That’s interesting you’ve picked up on that.  That has been a totally different experience.   I hope what people get out of it in the Audible version is that the people still hear the story which if of interest and then they’ll come see the play somewhere else.    

KS:  So it’s a commercial.

BC:  It think it’s a part-and-parcel.

KS:  God bless Audible for producing this off-Broadway production at Minetta Lane.

BC:  Absolutely.  Not only that, but they’ve started a fellowship this year and gave grants to aid playwrights.  As I told them, I’m grateful for anybody who invests in theatre and in particular in what works for them in one-person shows.  But the crucial part for me is the experience in the room.  That is one of the things that has made this so exciting for me.   We actors think of ourselves as storytellers so to get to that essence – to get to be one – in a room full of people is exhilarating to me.

KS:  Yes there is something almost ancient and Greek-like in that impulse to create theatre in this show.

BC:  No question.

KS:  That sitting around a campfire and let me tell you a story thing.

BC:  That’s it.   There is a feeling to the evening of a camp counselor getting his kids around and telling them a ghost story.   It’s thrilling.

KS:  It went back to a 1987, NY Times interview with David Cale when he was doing Smooch Music

BC: Oh, my God …

KS:  And the first sentence that Stephen Holden wrote in that article is this one: “The voice is caressing with an undertone of urgency, a hint of menace.”

BC: Wow …. wow … that’s all Harry, too, isn’t it.  That’s unbelievable.  I’m sure you’ve seen David perform.  He doesn’t have a menacing quality.  He has a mischievous quality.  But his writing and his observation of people is that he’s fascinated by the underbelly.

KS:  But he was smart.  He workshopped this himself at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh but because of the physicality of the role, it makes more sense that someone like you – that you yourself – are doing this role because of its physically seductive nature which is an innate part of the story.  Don’t take this wrong way – but you look more gigolo-like.   You have a movie-star sex appeal that works in the role. 

BC:  I would have loved to have seen David’s version of it.  But a lot of this is my kind of jazz version of this.  Even as we were rehearsing we realized that there were a lot of “she says” and “he says” in the text that we ended not needing because if you can make those characters distinct enough it feels to the audience that the scene is happening in front of them. 

KS:  I was just in London and saw Carey Mulligan do Girls & Boys, her one-person show at the Royal Court by Dennis Kelly directed by Lindsey Turner.   She doesn’t really do the panoply of voices that you do but there is a physicality  you share with her in the way you delineate your scenes.  Hers has a lot to do with convincing us of the presence of her children – which is an important way for the show to pay off in the end. 

BC:  She’s an amazing actress, incredibly adept.  I’m jealous you got to see that.  I was just there for three days recently but was unable to see any theater.   

KS:  I just love going to theatre.  It is where I find a kind of home.

BC:  Me too.  Walking into The National for me is a like Shangri-La. 

KS:  You spoke of jazz.  David writes very jazz-like.  He riffs intuitively with language.  His stream-of-consciousness monologues are kind of like textual scatting.  Ella Fitzgerald crossed with Stella Adler.

BC. We had a couple of “live” houses recently and it was as close to a feeling of rock-n-roll as I think I’ll ever get. 

KS:  I’ll be curious how those NYU students react to the work.

BC:  Me too.  I’m looking forward to it.

KS:  You have a teenage son.

BC:  He’s fourteen.

KS:  Well, that’s a teenager.

BC:  It sure is. 

KS:  Has he seen this?

BC:  He snuck into the second preview when it as at the Vineyard Theatre.  He was with me doing his homework or whatever and I told him, okay, I’m off to do my job.  But he had arranged with the house management to get a ticket in the back.  That was before I could even give him approval to see it.

KS:  Yeah, some of this material is a bit grown-up.  But that was smart of him to not interfere with your work in your knowing he was there.

BC:  He didn’t.  It was so sweet too.  He actually put on one of my own nice jackets before he came.  He’s an awesome kid. 

KS:  That’s sort of sweet.  Not very teenage-like, in fact.

BC:  No, not at all.  But it all changed the next day, trust me.   But most of the really complicated, adult material was not even of interest to him yet – which was good.  Because I was ready to have a lot of conversations about a lot of things. 

KS:  He’s got theatre in his DNA.  Mary-Louise Parker is his mother. 

BC:  He sure does.

KS:  Well, either he’ll rebel and become a banker and a Republican or he’ll probably be an artist of some type.  You say you’ve entered a new phase of your career.  Part of that new phase is that you have a son who is becoming old enough to come see you work and understand what you do in a new way, to see you as an artist and not just his father. 

BC:  And there is no question that there is a part of doing something like Harry Clarke that speaks to my own desire to take my work seriously – which means if you are being given the opportunity to be artistically  expressive it shouldn’t be a consideration  how much it costs you or how hard it is.  Because I have never done anything harder than this.  You told me that it looks as if I’m having the time of my life and I’m having fun – well, that is the biggest trick I’m pulling off. 

KS:  Well, then you’re an even better actor than I even thought.  Although, I didn’t say you were having fun.  I said you looked happy.  That’s a bit different. 

BC:  Yes.  But I was instilled with that work ethic by people I admired growing up.  And I obviously want my son to feel that level of connection to  what it means to work even if it is a job where you put on other people’s clothes.

KS:  Do you think he wants to be an actor like his mom and dad?

BC:  He loves acting.   I don’t think at the moment he knows if he wants to do it or not.

KS:  But he’s seen it from the point of view of having two actors as parents who work a lot.  That’s a bit of a charmed perspective in the overall context of acting.

BC:  I tell him all the time, dude, this is an anomaly.  Both of us instill an affection for any interest he has in it and support it but also I think we’re quite cautious in preparing him for it.

KS:  But if it’s nature not nuture then he’s probably talented.

BC:  His mom and I saw him in his school play a couple of years ago and Mary-Louise and I looked at each other and went, “Oh, God, oh, no, he’s good.”

KS:  But you love him like a dad not like a director.  So you get nervous for him.  But he made you relax in your seat as an audience member.  He’s a maybe stage creature too.

BC:  Exactly.  

  • Kevin Sessums is the author of two New York Times bestselling memoirs, Mississippi Sissy and I Left It on the Mountain.

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