Hughie Credit: Liz Lauren

The rag and bone shop of the heart is open for business at the Goodman, under the magnificent proprietorship of Brian Dennehy. In this pairing of one-acts by Eugene O’Neill and Samuel Beckett, Dennehy delivers the distilled essence of how time strips away our illusions—and, with a masterful ease that only occasionally hints at self-consciousness, reasserts his stature as the go-to guy for playing aging men raging against the dying of the light.

O’Neill’s Hughie and Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape may seem like a natural match. Both are by writers of Irish descent who became titans of 20th-century drama, and both feature seedy fellows who’ve spent years immured in their own shabby versions of the hero’s journey, which have taken them exactly nowhere. But it’s the differences between the two pieces that come through most clearly here.

Robert Falls’s staging of O’Neill’s 1941 script—technically a two-hander but functionally a monologue—revels in the desperate expansiveness of Erie Smith, a small-time Broadway gambler whose only friend, the titular night clerk at the fleabag hotel where he stays, has died. Coming off a days-long bender prompted, so he claims, by Hughie’s demise, Erie tries to replicate his connection with his dead acquaintance by befriending the new night clerk (Joe Grifasi)—whose surname, coincidentally, is Hughes.

Falls, Dennehy, and Grifasi premiered their Hughie at the Goodman in 2004, and subsequently mounted it at several other theaters, including the 2008 Stratford Shakespeare Festival, where it was first paired with Krapp’s Last Tape (directed both there and here by Jennifer Tarver). Set in 1928 (Erie is crashing just ahead of the stock market), Hughie uses creaky period vernacular. But Dennehy gives it an unforced freshness and fire—in a marked departure from his performance in Falls’s controversial Goodman staging of O’Neill’s Desire Under the Elms last year, where he was literally overshadowed by outsize visual elements. “He lapped up my stories like a saucerful of heroin,” says Dennehy’s sodden gamester of his dead pal, and whether it’s true or not, we believe he believes it.

Dennehy gets subtle but solid support from Grifasi, whose night clerk, owlish and reserved at first, slowly opens up to Erie’s blandishments and reproaches. Disarmingly innocent, he’s the perfect mark for a con man whose greatest racket is getting other people to believe he’s still in the game.

No such illusions cling to Krapp, whose only onstage companion is his own voice, recorded 30 years earlier. Trapped in a black den with a single interrogatory light hanging overhead, Dennehy’s grizzled Krapp celebrates his birthday—more or less—by playing through tapes made by his younger self, a would-be writer who believed he was at the “crest of the wave—or thereabouts.” The difference between Erie and Krapp (besides the fact that Beckett’s deracinated protagonist lacks even a first name) is that Erie can still delude himself and at least one other person. Krapp can’t.

The genius in pairing these two pieces is that we’re forced to ask ourselves which is worse: delusion or the lack of same? That dichotomy carries through in the beautifully realized sets, both designed by Eugene Lee. Hughie‘s Times Square hotel retains just enough traces of its former comforts to suggest that it and Erie had a heyday once and might again. (So does Erie’s dirty-white suit, designed by Patrick Clark, which makes him look like a Mr. Hyde version of Tom Wolfe.) A New York transit map on an upstage wall subtly suggests that there’s always an escape—a sensation reinforced by the roaring trains of Richard Woodbury’s sound design. It also girds Erie’s reminiscences of New York as a place that small-town kids such as himself and Hughie worshipped as a city of dreams. Erie talks about Hughie coming off the train at Grand Central, imagining that “Old Man Success” was about to hand him “the keys to the city,” then grudgingly admits, “Even I believed that one.”

Dennehy’s worn-out Krapp is denuded of belief in anything except the sorrowful awareness that he’s spent a lifetime chasing the wrong dreams. Lee’s black set and Robert Thomson’s stark lighting establish the tone from the beginning. The curtain rises and we see Dennehy’s still features in a circle of light, his eyes in shadow. Beckett’s mordant wit still gets ample play—Tarver comes up with a fairly novel take on the famous banana-peel pratfall—but this is a dark ride. Erie has the ear of his night-shift confessor, and the younger Krapp had the comforts of women whose love he took for granted. Now in his final hours, Dennehy’s Krapp paints a heart-wrenching portrait of what it means to see—or more accurately, hear—oneself as one truly is.