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Revisiting the Plays of Our Past

Director Steven Robman

At a rundown hotel in Eugene O’Neill’s Hughie, Erie Smith mourns the death of his friend Hughie and attempts to regale the hotel’s new night clerk with stories of his conquests and gambling victories. Though Erie misses his friend and hopes for connection, the play is in many ways a portrait of an unexamined life. In Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape, Krapp sits in his den on his birthday and listens to a recording he made 30 years prior — a moment in which we see a life thoroughly, mercilessly examined.

In the first week of rehearsals for the double bill of Hughie and Krapp’s Last Tape, I chatted with director Steven Robman about his early conversations on the play with actors Brian Dennehy and Joe Grifasi and the ways these two pieces speak to one another.

Though Brian Dennehy has performed this particular pairing together before, both these one acts are often performed as standalone pieces. What do you see as some of the similarities that make these plays a good match?

Steven Robman: We come to the theater to watch a story being told. But, interestingly enough, in both of these plays, the action is literally the telling of a story. I don’t mean in the conventional sense of an audience sitting there piecing together a plot as the play moves along. I mean the charactersare actually spinning yarns — and that’s one of the reasons I’m drawn to this bill. As I get older, the need for storytelling has become more and more interesting to me. It’s such a consistent thing among cultures. And when I was looking at these plays, I realized that there is a confessional component to both of them. In fact, the form the story takes in both cases is very much a confession. This made me wonder if virtually every telling of a story is a confession. Whether the story is about the person who’s relating it or about someone else, the telling of the story bespeaks its importance to the person who’s telling it, which means it’s an examination of the values that person has. Even if I simply tell you about six silly things my brother did, I inevitably reveal how I feel about my brother. I don’t know if I could defend this idea in a PhD dissertation, but I’m saying that you might make the argument that every story is a kind of confession. That, to me, linked these two plays together and interested me to the point of wanting to evoke the imagery and iconography of a confessional booth in some of the details of the set. There’s a lobby of a pretty threadbare hotel in Hughie and a slightly nondescript dank basement in Krapp’s Last Tape. But we are hoping to suggest a sense of the confessional in each of the plays. There’s both solace and penance in the confessional notion, and whenever we have two things like that that are fighting with each other — on the one hand, comfort, and on the other hand, punishment — that’s good for theater. If you can figure out a way to evoke that tension graphically or certainly in the emotional content of what you’re doing — you’re on to something there, because your audience is going to get caught in that. They’re going to sway one way or the other and we’re hoping they will lean in and wonder how things will resolve.

Do you find there are differences between the two pieces that an audience perhaps wouldn’t feel to the same extent if they were performed separately?

SR: Yes. In Hughie, the main character Erie cracks a lot of jokes. There is a desperation underneath and we hope you’ll smell that as well, but Erie can be pretty amusing. He’s a smalltime gambler who’s been on a four-day bender and lives in a cheap hotel where he’s probably been for 15 years and he’s got one suit and it’s a mess. He’s not a gangster — that would be too lofty a term — but more of a raconteur who commits some smalltime truancies from time to time. There are a lot of laughs and there is a cautiously optimistic end to the play. In Krapp’s Last Tape, Beckett very cleverly lays a trap, in a way, because we have a lot of fun for 10–15 minutes with some almost burlesque, circus-like business that occurs before we start to understand the compelling reason why this man is down in his basement listening to his tape recorder. But in the end, it would be hard to say that particular play is cautiously optimistic. Despite the fact that both plays have their humorous sides, Krapp’s Last Tape is a darker, more brooding examination of a man’s plight. What’s interesting to me in presenting the two plays together is how the need to confess — and, really, to redeem oneself — can take such different forms.

How are you and the actors working to mine the humor and the pathos in these characters?

Actor Brian Denney stars as “Erie Smith” in Hughie and “Krapp” in Krapp’s Last Tape

SR: Brian’s done the plays before and he brings to the table all the experience of having previously worked on them — not to mention the life experience of it having been ten years since he did them last. He and I first worked together 40 years ago. We did a play by Ron Hutchinson called Says I Says HeOff-Broadway — which somebody at the Taper saw, and we did it at the Taper the following season. In that play, Joe Grifasi [who plays the Night Clerk in Hughie] and Brian and I worked together for the first time. I knew Joe from drama school but I didn’t know Brian before then. And we have thought a little bit about the fact that this is inadvertently the 40-year anniversary of us first working together. So all of us bring that sort of — the whiskers on your life, so to speak — to it. And the fact that we’re kind of jokesters together obviously affects the mix. We try to have some fun in rehearsals — not hard with these two guys.

Do you remember what you thought of these plays when you first encountered them?

SR: I remember seeing Krapp’s Last Tape when I was a young graduate student — I saw a student production. I had no idea what the hell was going on, no idea whatsoever. Now, mind you, it was a 25-year-old graduate student in age makeup who was performing it, which may have somewhat impeded my understanding of what was happening. But I remember, in my innocence, just not getting the point of the play. As far as Hughie goes, I read it before I ever saw a production. And I remember thinking, “Wow, what a wonderful mouthful for someone.” The other thing that struck me was the very, very extensive stage directions about what the Night Clerk is thinking in the play. That character has about a dozen lines and Erie Smith, the main character, has 50 minutes of dialogue. Some productions have gone as far as letting the Night Clerk speak some of the stage directions. In others, the actor records that stuff and it is played back quietly in the gaps between the main character’s speeches. But I’m not messing with that in this production.

Is there anything else that you’d like the audience to know about what you’ve been chewing on in the initial rehearsals?

SR: Brian brought up an interesting fact that I had not seen pointed out before. O’Neill wrote Hughie in 1942, but it was not performed until 1958. Krapp’s Last Tape was written and premiered in 1958. So, we’re talking about plays that both opened in the same year and not that long after a major world conflagration that included the first use of atomic weapons. If you wanted to extend the sociopolitical component of literary criticism, you could point to each as a response to the post-World War II battle with fatalism that generated all sorts of darker points of view in the world. You wonder whether in both cases these plays are responses to the sense of things being no longer under the easy control of human beings.

By Rachel Wiegardt-Egel

For tickets and showtimes, please visit geffenplayhouse.org/hughiekrapps or call our Box Office at 310.208.5454 (open daily, 7:00 a.m. — 6:00 p.m.).

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