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The Hurt Krapp

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Distinguished Brit film actor makes New York theatrical debut in Beckett classic

Maybe 30 years from now, people will look back at YouTube videos they posted in 2011 to recover some sense of who they were and who they are. When Samuel Beckett wrote “Krapp’s Last Tape” in 1958 — five years after he burst on the theater scene with “Waiting for Godot” — the technology du jour was the home tape recorder and his protagonist uses it to record birthday reflections annually. As this production from Dublin's Gate Theatre demonstrates, it is a risky business.

John Hurt, who made his name as Quentin Crisp in TV’s “The Naked Civil Servant” in 1975 and has had a distinguished film career, first took on the role of Krapp more than ten years ago in Dublin and the West End, did it again under Atom Egoyan’s direction in 2000 for a television series called “Beckett on Film,” and reprised it on stage at London’s small Barbican Pit for a Beckett centenary festival in 2006.

At 71, Hurt is now around the age of Krapp, 69, whom we meet in an extended Beckettian silence. He does little more in his hour upon the stage than listen to a tape he recorded at 39 and record one for his less-than-fighting 69th. Yes, there is some strutting and fretting and vaudevillian eating, but the theatrical beauty of “Krapp” is its ability to bring a whole world and life into a drab ill-lit room.

On this count, the creative team led by Hurt and director Michael Colgan of the Gate do not disappoint.

“Krapp” is a short and little one-act play and if anyone is up to filling BAM’s sizeable Harvey Theater with it, it is Hurt, who keeps us riveted to the small square of light that he inhabits and from which he no longer gets out much. Still, Hurt’s is one of the most naturalistic Krapps I’ve seen — much less of a Beckett clown than most –– and such a fine and nuanced approach is more appreciated at close range.

Krapp’s younger self 30 years earlier is already acknowledging that he is at “the crest of the wave, or thereabouts,” which means that it has all been downhill from there to the bitter, dismissive musings of the contemporary Krapp. In his 70th year, Krapp acknowledges he doesn’t have much to say. But those earlier tapes are still around to torture him –– with the things he thought he would never forget (but has) and the bittersweet memory of intimate love that he has lost forever. “Drowned in dreams and burning to be gone,” he says. Hurt is exquisite at embodying this existential pain.

Beckett was –– and his estate is –– a stickler for adherence to the text (and stage directions, for that matter), but I will risk heresy and suggest that one of Krapp’s most famous lines makes no sense.

Krapp at 69 records, “Just been listening to that stupid bastard I took myself for 30 years ago. Hard to believe I was ever as bad as that.” But he did not take himself for a stupid bastard three decades before. He was full of himself and the aged Krapp recognizes that.

Beckett is my favorite writer and I don’t have a hundredth of his poetic gifts, but it would work better if he’d just said, “that stupid bastard I was 30 years ago.” (This has bugged me since I did a cutting from “Krapp” in high school speech tournaments in the late 1960s.)

BAM, now 150, is scheduled to open its first new venue since 1987 next fall, the Richard B. Fisher Building at 321 Ashland Place, which will house a 250-seat theater along with performance space for community groups. Let’s hope they have the artistic sense to put intimate plays such as “Krapp” in there –– even when they have so estimable a performer as John Hurt, who is close to selling out the Harvey.

For those who can’t make it to Brooklyn or score a ticket, Hurt’s film version of the play is up in its entirety on YouTube as are those of Harold Pinter, Michael Gambon, and Patrick Magee, for whom Beckett wrote the role. But this is a great work of live theater and it was a privilege to witness it in the hands of masters.

Essentials:

KRAPP’S LAST TAPE

BAM’s Harvey Theatre

651 Fulton St. at Ashland Pl.

Dec. 8-11, 13-17 at 7:30 p.m.

Dec. 10, 14 & 17 at 2 p.m.

Dec. 11 & 18 at 3 p.m.

$25 - $120; bam.org

Or 718-636-4100

Updated 8:15 pm, August 29, 2018
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