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Theater Review Scratching the surface of a Beckett masterpiece

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Joseph Hurley

KRAPP’S LAST TAPE, by Samuel Beckett. Directed by Vincent O’Neill. Featuring Jerry Finnegan. Produced by the Irish Repertory Theatre in association with The Irish Classical Theatre. At the W. Scott McLucas Theater, 132 W. 22nd St., NYC. Through Nov. 29.

When Dublin’s Gate Theatre visited Lincoln Center in the summer of 1996, performing everything Samuel Beckett had ever written expressly for the stage, it seemed especially clear that the great Dubliner’s true authorial "voice" was distinctly an Irish voice, and that the plays, "Waiting for Godot" and "Endgame" and the others, quite simply sounded better, richer, and more natural when heard in the voices of Irish actors.

The Gate’s "Krapp’s Last Tape" was performed by David Kelly, a thin, wizened Irish stage veteran whose melodious voice seemed to contain, in and of itself, elements of the pain and longing Beckett had poured into the 1958 one-act play, a monologue concerning a melancholy old man who, on his 69th birthday, listens to a tape recording he had made 30 years earlier, before his idealism had vanished and most vestiges of hope had faded from his personal spectrum.

The play, powerful, rueful and surpassingly beautiful, has, since it first appeared, exerted a tremendous magnetism for actors in their middle years or later. Over the years, "Krapp’s Last Tape" has been performed by Canada’s Donald Davis, who introduced the play to New York, by David Warrilow, whose version, according to Sean O’Casey’s daughter Siobhan, "Sam particularly liked," and by such actors as Patrick Magee, Nicholas Kepros, and, last season, Edward Petherbridge, as part of a five-play visit Britain’s Royal Shakespeare Company paid to the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

Now Beckett’s brief play is back again, in a bizarre, semi-baroque version imported from the University of Buffalo’s Department of Theatre and Dance, where both the performer, Jerry Finnegan, and his director, Vincent O’Neill, are employed. This particular rendering of "Krapp’s Last Tape" is on view on the downstairs stage of the Irish Repertory Theatre, known officially as the W. Scott McLucas Theater, where it will run through Nov. 29.

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This is a long, slow, heavily embroidered "Krapp," taking fully 50 minutes to complete, where many versions are over and done with, with no sense of having been rushed, in 34 minutes.

Actor Finnegan, as the lights slowly, slowly reveal him, at first appears to be a perfect Krapp, with an aureole of wispy white hair gleaming over a lined, time-ravaged face. His thin frame is clothed in a collarless white shirt, over which he wears a worn-looking black vest.

When he speaks, however, in an unswervingly American, almost Midwestern voice, the Irish magic of Beckett’s words flies away like fallen leaves before a harsh wind, never to return.

Finnegan’s "Krapp" is probably among the most puzzling and most external readings of the play. He does what Beckett says he must do. He unlocks the desk drawers, finds three bananas, two of which he eats, storing the third in the inner pocket of his vest. Instead of casually dropping the banana peels where they may easily be slipped on, he hurls the first toward the back of the small stage and then flings the second against the stage left wall with puzzling force.

Part of the lure of "Krapp’s Last Tape" is the hero’s inescapable memories of lost loves, which haunt him from start to finish. There is a girl "in a shabby green coat standing on a railway station platform," and there is "Bianca," perhaps the same girl, perhaps not, with whom Krapp appears to have lived for a time, not particularly successfully.

And, as almost always with Beckett, there are references to a dying mother. Finnegan’s choices are occasionally odd, and one of them involves one of the most memorably beautiful lines Beckett ever wrote. Recounting a particularly self-destructive moment in his personal history, Krapp describes himself as sitting quietly, perhaps even contemplating suicide, "drowned in dreams and longing to be gone."

For reasons known only to himself, and perhaps to director O’Neill, Finnegan omits the "and," destroying the line’s rhythm, and then breaks the thought into two shattered phrases, saying the first, then taking a pause and, lifting his head so that he is nearly facing the stage ceiling, fires off the second like a shot from a tiny cannon.

This particular "Krapp’s Last Tape" seems surprisingly devoid of the depth of feeling that would normally be an automatic and useful tool of almost any experienced actor of an age suitable for the role.

The Finnegan/O’Neill "Krapp’s Last Tape" lasts about 50 minutes, with the additional minutes being padded out with decidedly eccentric embellishments.

Moving around his desk, Finnegan squares his corners like an elderly tin soldier. He holds each of the two bananas he actually devours jutting out of his mouth like a pipestem for 20 seconds or so. Why? The only available answer would appear to be in order to be different, perhaps to do something other actors and directors hadn’t thought of, perhaps to stamp the play and the part with a tiny fragment of his own personality.

It would probably be difficult for any experienced actor to be actively bad in Samuel Beckett’s wonderful "Krapp’s Last Tape," but it now seems entirely possible to miss the aching heart of the material, thereby making no enduring impression whatever on the experience. That, sad to report, is precisely what Finnegan and O’Neill have done.

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