“I believe that imagination is the passport we create to take us into the real world,” proffers the conman and self-proclaimed son of Sidney Poitier, Paul Poitier, in John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation – a play that questions the premise of identity as much as it does the values of the effete upper class who give credence to pedigree. Watching Guare’s play, one sympathizes with Paul’s need to reinvent himself so that he can join an elite circle. One even senses that the well-rehearsed interloper does more to earn the sought-for lifestyle than the phonies who inherited their status. But while Guare may have intellectually flirted with the idea that a man with a false identity can be more genuine than the crowd he’s infiltrating, when it came to confronting David Hampton – the real person his play is based on – the playwright took a less philosophical view and, instead, applied for a restraining order. Were David Cale to meet the charismatic namesake of his play Harry Clarke, it’s more than likely he’d have done the same.
Directed by Leigh Silverman of Violet renowned (the 1997 musical by Jeanine Tesori and Brian Crowley), Harry Clarke is a one-man thriller that gives ample room for its multifaceted powerhouse star, Billy Crudup. Trapped in the nondescript Midwestern town of South Bend, Indiana, we meet Philip years prior to his transformation into Harry of the title. Philip Brugglestein is an eight-year-old who’s testing out a British accent that jumps between a posh queen’s English and cockney patois. What first seems like endearing foolery soon betrays desperation. Like the character Dave in Steve Tesich’s classic screenplay Breaking Away – a bicycle-racing youth in Indiana who pretends to be Italian in order to escape the monotony of his life – Philip longs to be elsewhere. Like Dave’s dad who doesn’t know what to make of his son’s ‘Itey (Italian) talk,’ Phil’s dad doesn’t get his son’s ‘Britty Brit.’ Sadly, similarities end here since Philip’s dad, Jack, is a caustic and oppressive bully. Assuming his father’s voice, Philip introduces us to Jack – a man who threatens Philip with electro-shock therapy if he won’t stop speaking with a British dialect.
Our story resumes years later with the death of Philip’s parents and the simultaneous death of Philip as we know him. Philip has been reborn as Harry Clarke, the dapper and charismatic world traveler who hails from London and has moved to Manhattan after having abandoned his job as tour manager, personal assistant and smooth operator par excellence for Sade. Well, at least this is the story he tells Mark Schmidt, the well-to-do WASP from Long Island who does his and his family’s utmost to ensure that Harry continues to live in the style he was never accustomed to living (sic).
As Mark and his gullible family are dragged to the depths of Harry’s fantasy, the mood shifts from comedy to drama to absurd tragedy in the course of an act. Crudup gives us a virtuoso performance, depicting Harry and his entire cast of victims step by horrific step.
Playwright David Cale teeters on the edge of fantasy and reality. His play, Harry Clarke, can be read as the type of whimsical but dark-edged fantasy in which all those with thwarted ambitions indulge. When Philip as Harry Clarke, says, “I felt liberated. Special. Like I was finally being myself,” he is voicing what Al Jolson must have felt when he first put on black-face. He was free to express his inner most feelings in a palatable form. Pretending to be an African American, Jolson could vent all his pent up suffering as the son of immigrant Jews. Likewise, Philip felt he could be his true self as Harry. It’s not uncommon for artists to concoct a lie in the service of a greater truth – to express an emotional reality in the guise of an alien character that’s unencumbered by the minutiae of their own history.
Doesn’t every playwright pretend to be other people precisely when writing a play closest to their hearts? And how many writers don’t feel that they have, on some level, conned the world into believing they have deep insights while still harboring doubts themselves? And still it’s very different to fabricate characters within the realm of one’s own creation than to involve nonconsenting strangers in your lie. Meeting a real David Hampton or Alan Conway (the man who pretended to be Stanley Kubrick and was depicted in the film Color me Kubrick) is very different than imagining oneself into Kubrick’s head and writing a play about him. Likewise, witnessing the talents of a Talented Mr. Ripley in person is a far cry from having been friends with Patricia Highsmith while she put herself in Ripley’s place to writer her book.
David Cale, like the character Philip Brugglestein invented, did come from the UK. After coming to New York, he performed a one-man show about a boy who was busy listening to Judy Garland records while his father killed his mother. Later the same boy becomes a prostitute before raising enough money to fly to New York. On the plane ride over, he meets his future self. Which part had to do with Cale’s own life? Aside from being born in London and coming to New York, absolutely nothing. That doesn’t mean the rest didn’t have emotional reality. David Cale is Harry Clarke as much and as little as John Guare is David Hampton. In fantasy, they may be similar. But in deeds, there is a world of difference between life and art. As the play Harry Clarke came to a close, I realized we all have our own fantasies – childish dreams that must forever remain safely tucked away in our own imaginations.