Audible and ‘Harry Clarke’ Remade David Cale’s Career

Starring Billy Crudup, produced by Audible, it was performance, workshop and theater history in one.

This isn't David Cale. But it is Harry Clarke. Maybe. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

Sometimes the best solitary moments are those you share with the whole world.

For months now, the great solo performer David Cale has had a moment with Harry Clarke, one of the most recent of Cale’s signature monologues. Harry Clarke has won awards, seen its run extended, and even got a shout-out Twitter rave from Chelsea Clinton. It became a bona fide downtown hit, transferring from the Vineyard Theatre, an Off-Broadway nonprofit, to the for-profit Minetta Lane Theatre for a 10-week run. And now it will live forever as a beautifully produced audio presentation available from Audible.

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Harry Clarke undulates between creepy, sexy and funny, and then back to creepy. But the character –a Cockney with a high libido and zero impulse control — doesn’t actually exist. He is the creation of a very damaged kid from the Midwestern sticks named Philip Brugglestein, who, in Cale’s play, somehow cannot function without speaking in a soft, wavering British accent that he learned from TV. When that mask proves insufficient, conscience-free Harry is born. And, for a minute or so, NYC is Brugglestein’s oyster, bedroom and bank, up and down for anything and anyone. If this reminds you a little of Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley, that’s because, Cale says, the influence is entirely intentional.

Here’s the surprise: everywhere that Harry Clarke was performed, Cale was found nowhere near the stage. For the first time in his extraordinary, decades-long solo career, his creation was played by another actor — Billy Crudup, no less, whose loose-limbed, 19-character tour through Harry’s numerous cons and seductions and crimes helped to secure the play a 2018 Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Solo Show.

Audible’s version of Harry Clarke was released between its 2017 Vineyard run and its 2018 restaging at the Minetta Lane, but that was just part of the company’s involvement. Audible, which is currently putting millions of literal dollars into a broad array of theater initiatives, also produced and promoted the Minetta Lane run, making it possible for many more people to meet sly Harry in the flesh.

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And it is likely, also thanks to Audible, that the Harry most people will meet will slither into their ears, not onto a stage. And Cale is fine with that. He told me that he uses music metaphors to describe the audio Harry Clarke. Thinking of it as “an album,” he praised Crudup’s gifts as an audio actor and also the director of the play, Leigh Silverman, as a partner in the process. Cale expressed gratitude for Audible’s considerable support in its producing and promoting of Harry Clarke. As being a solo performer often means being a solo PR person, he was glad not to have do it by himself this time around.

Audio Harry Clarke also contains some delicious additions. There is Cale performing one of his classics — Lillian, a gentler tale of seduction and confusion; there is a conversation between Cale and Silverman; there is a post-show discussion with Crudup, Cale, Silverman as well as Vineyard Theatre Artistic Director Sarah Stern. Audio Harry Clarke is a performance, but also a performance workshop and also a piece of theater history, all in one.

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David Cale. Photo by Paula Court.

To this long-time fan of solo performers — and of Cale in particular — this “album” is a great gift. Cale began his career in 1980s, in the days before people could whip out their phones and just start recording whatever was in front of them, whether they created it or not. Until very recently, it was terribly expensive to document even the simplest act of theater, and so much has been lost as a result. There was no way, for example, to capture the foggy bray of Charles Ludlam as Camille, bringing audiences to tears as he perished, or to memorialize Jeff Weiss’ murder-mystery cum show-tune, crooning with Willem Dafoe, as they made 1980s hipsters sway and shiver in the dank Performing Garage. You should have been there! But Ludlam is gone; Weiss doesn’t make that kind of work anymore. Indeed, to quote the title of Cale’s latest show, We’re Only Alive For a Short Amount of Time. The efforts of Audible and others to make theater and technology connect to each other — and connect to new audiences — are welcome and essential.

That Audible carefully, beautifully curated a piece like Harry Clarke means that the company isn’t simply pressing record and throwing it Cale’s work onto the Internet. It’s helping to create the next generation of theater lovers and makers. Harry may be alone on the stage, but I hope his fans will be legion.