Krapp's Last Tape
Through Dec. 18. Long Wharf Theatre Stage II, 222 Sargent Drive. (203) 787-4282, longwharf.org.
Krapp, the solo character in Samuel Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape, now playing at Long Wharf with Brian Dennehy recreating a role he has played many times, is something of an enigma. He's a writer — his work, as he blurts out, has sold a pittance, primarily to lending libraries — and it's his 69th birthday; his birthday ritual is to record himself speaking on a reel-to-reel tape, after listening to earlier recordings, reflecting on his earlier self and his recent past. Krapp doesn't address the audience directly or explain himself, but rather reacts — often with bitter laughter, at times with almost rapt wonder — to what he hears his earlier self saying on the tape: Spool 5, Box Three.
The situation of the play is a brilliant meditation on time and change, and the difference between, on tape, a 39-year-old person commenting on himself at 25 or 27, and, on stage, a person pushing 70 commenting on himself pushing 40. The fact that all are "the same person" only dramatizes the slipperiness of temporal continuity: Krapp refers to his earlier self as "he" because he recognizes that in some essential ways he is no longer the "same person." At one point the use of the word "viduity" sends Krapp in search of his dictionary to find the meaning of a word he once could use correctly but now no longer recalls. Such are the simple but suggestive moments of slippage and recovery that create the drama of the play.
But even before we hear any of the tapes, a different kind of slippage occurs: a bit of delightful vaudevillian pantomime in which Krapp, a crusty old codger, searches in locked drawers of his desk as though uncertain what he'll find — his precious last spool of tape in one, in another a banana. He then toys with the banana, peeling it with pleasure, letting it hang from his mouth as children do imitating chimps, and in the ironic spirit of Beckett's clowns, manages to slip not on the peel, but on the residue, or ghost of the peel. Fitting for a play of remnants and residues: the trace of a banana, the voice of himself at 39, and the details of those mentioned. His deceased mother and father, a white dog he gave a black ball to, a girl in a green coat at a railway station, the old woman who sang to herself in the evening, all are ghosts that briefly return. Dennehy's shifting visage registers with great nuance the pain or the confusion or the mirth inspired by the memories dredged up and the small frictions they cause with Krapp's current state.
What we learn of the man is suggestive more than narrative — he listens raptly to himself recalling a blissful moment with a woman in a punt, on the water, while elsewhere excoriating the self-importance of his earlier self. On the tape, Dennehy speaks in a plummy voice that reminded me of the young Orson Welles, a voice of exacting self-regard and ambition. The current Krapp, barely articulate, realizes that such self-regard was vain and misplaced, that his younger self sacrificed what might, in retrospect, have been a chance for happiness.
Seeing Dennehy at the desk with his large head and shoulders, his white hair and beard, I was reminded of Hemingway, a titan who, like Welles, found himself in later life eclipsed by the greatness of his youth. Dennehy has none of the emaciated and angular look of Beckett himself, so we're free to imagine a quite different sort of young writer, a more robust and American Krapp undergoing this play's gradual, fascinating fade into inevitable darkness.