“The drunken truth at midnight
Proves false before the dawn
When you wonder where she is tonight
And what dress she might have on.
Don’t try driving by her house, son,
You’ll find her bedroom light still on.
They say, ‘Man, does it hurt?’
‘No, it don’t faze me.’
Lying is the mother tongue
On the other side of crazy.”
-Tom Russell, “The Other Side of Crazy”
Once in a while you see someone who feels like they were born to interpret a particular writer’s work; William H. Macy doing Mamet comes to mind. I saw that with Brian Dennehy in Eugene O’Neill’s Hughie at the Goodman Theatre. The play has every criticism you could levy at O’Neill – ponderous, preachy, a little too on-the-nose, and it’s basically a monologue (a two-hander but the other person, the night clerk in a New York hotel, maybe has 20 lines in the hour he and Dennehy are on the stage) - without the punch in the gut delivered by O’Neill’s best work like The Iceman Cometh or Long Day’s Journey Into Night (which Dennehy won a Tony for). And it needed a better audience, the crowd laughed like they were seeing Caddyshack through about half of it, but that’s no fault of the performance.
Dennehy understood that the classic needed someone who brings that late-‘40s gravitas to it, he needs to read O’Neill like he’s doing Shakespeare or Jonson. Trying to interpret those words and especially those rhythms in what an audience member (by which I mean, as in everything else I write, me) would read as more naturalistic or “realistic” acting, has been the downfall of many a very fine performer, as with Jena Malone and Joseph Cross in last year’s Mourning Becomes Electra (for what it’s worth, I really enjoyed Lili Taylor in that but how much of that is the crush I’ve had on Taylor since I was 16 I’d rather not think about).
He hits just the right balance of self-assurance and self-awareness, deep down he knows he’s a failure tripping from one disappointment to the next relying on the easy love drunks have for strangers to keep his soul propped up. Always in a bluster, always on the verge of storming up to bed in a rage, but always finding a reason to stay and keep talking. By turns conciliatory, ingratiating, and prodding, he oozes through every interaction, and when he finds a weakness, he exploits it, but still loses more than you’d think. Direction, set design and especially the costume, a seersucker suit that as A. said “Mentally I was sure I could smell that jacket,” all worked, and any shortcomings in the play got swept away by watching a perfect performance by one of the true virtuosos of the theater.
After a 15 minute break Brian Dennehy came out to do Beckett’s masterpiece Krapp’s Last Tape, and he looked like he’d shrunk six inches and caved in on himself in the intervening moments. Mumbling to himself, alone, on his 69th birthday, listening to a tape of himself at 39 already talking about watching love slip away, needing to curb his drinking, and the confounding state of his bowels, along with everything else. He laughs bitterly along to the tape; reminiscing on a book he sold 17 copies of to overseas libraries. And no kind of plot description makes this sound as amazing as it is but he nails it, and the moment where he stops cold and starts singing “Now the day is over,” is one of the most chilling, heartbreaking things I’ve ever seen on a stage. I can’t imagine a better version of this play, if you get a chance, please, please take a minute and go to this.