‘Harry Clarke’ Theater Review: Billy Crudup Visits a Patricia Highsmith Landscape

With his very erotic new thriller, David Cale adds sex where the author of “The Talented Mr. Ripley” put murder

Patricia Highsmith didn’t write plays. Fortunately, David Cale does write them, and his new one, “Harry Clarke,” received its world premiere Tuesday at Off Broadway’s Vineyard Theatre. As the character Harry Clarke tells us early in this one-person thriller starring Billy Crudup, “I don’t understand why anyone would read reviews. Why would you want to know what’s going to happen?”

He has a point. It’s best not to know too much about “Harry Clarke” before seeing it, just as you wouldn’t want to know much about Highsmith’s “Strangers on a Train” and “The Talented Mr. Ripley” before reading them.

What we are told in the first few minutes of the play can be revealed here. Harry Clarke is actually a character that a young boy creates because, among other much more tantalizing reasons, his real name is Philip Brugglestein, a real “mouthful.”

Even before the creation of Harry, the young Philip speaks with an English accent, which upsets his parents because, after all, he’s from South Bend, Indiana. It’s a very proper-sounding English accent, but for reasons never revealed, Philip decides to give Harry a jaunty Cockney accent.

As played to perfection by Crudup, Harry has all the charisma of Cary Grant in “Sylvia Scarlett,” a Katharine Hepburn cross-dressing mega-flop that practically buried her film career in 1935 but revealed the raffish street charm of Grant for the first time on screen. Actually, Philip is a little clumsy at being Harry in the beginning, when he moves to Manhattan and tries out his alter ego on an unsuspecting populace. He quickly turns into a polished con artist, as well as a real stud.

There’s a murder stuck in the middle of “Harry Clarke,” but you almost don’t notice it. Philip/Harry brushes it off. There is, however, a lot of sex. Sex is to Cale what murder is to Highsmith. While a Highsmith character tempts fate by offing people, Harry does the same by having way too much sex, and almost always with people who know each other. It isn’t murder, but it’s walking a tight rope without a net just the same.

“Harry Clarke” is an amazingly erotic play, amazing because there’s only Crudup on stage and he never engages in masturbation. Nor are there any “Torch Song” moments of Harry in the act, pumping and bouncing around. There are instead many scenes of seduction. And they’re hot, especially when you consider Harry’s previous sex partner(s).

One scene has Crudup on his hands and knees, begging for it in the dark. The stage is bare, but the tension is moist thanks not only to the actor but designers Alexander Dodge (set), Alan C. Edwards (lighting), and Bart Fasbender (sound). Throughout, Leigh Silverman’s direction creates an environment of seeping malevolence and impending threats that stands in stark contrast to the ebullient, unrepentant Harry Clarke.