The two-character, 60 minute Hughie is an anomaly in the oeuvre of playwright Eugene O’Neill. Uber-dramatic marathons like Mourning Becomes Electra and Long Day’s Journey Into Night exemplify his natural idiom. O’Neill himself doubted the play’s viability. Apparently meant to be part of a series, but the only one to survive, we’ll never know his intentions. O’Neill died before its first production in 1958, long before the Broadway premiere (with Jason Robards Jr.) in 1964.
When we enter the theater, Christopher Oram’s frankly awe-inspiring Set immediately captivates. To call this 1928 fleabag hotel dilapidated is to attribute it with any reason for survival. Cross sections of ceiling and floor indicate much earlier, now disintegrating construction. The once grand lobby is filthy. From its elegant pillars to the large, ornate, wrought iron elevator – Out of Order – and luggage ‘cart,’ patterned tin ceilings, beautifully designed lights, oversized revolving door, and the kind of gracious stairway Loretta Young would have adored, the place could easily be construed as Limbo, occupied only by musk and ghosts.
Sitting onstage half an hour before show time, a lone night clerk stares into the distance. Slowly, sconces and overheads go on, joining the desk lamp, as does what we can see of a neon hotel name outside a window. It must be around 4am. Lighting Designer Neil Austin deserves a Tony nomination for the subtlety and detail of daylight’s snail-like advance. Geometric shadows are not just evocative, but artful. Mood is insidiously affected with every incremental change.
Beginning with vividly recalled atmosphere, it would be remiss not to here mention Adam Cork’s Sound Design which consists of street traffic (including trolleys) and rather extraordinary music, which comes and goes creating parentheses, adding darkness and irrevocability to the play’s tenor. Cork’s Costumes are correct, but it’s difficult to believe the hero has just come off a bender in a clean, unwrinkled suit.
Erie Smith (Forest Whitaker) enters, somewhat the worse for wear. A down and out Runyonesque (Damon Runyon) gambler, he gets by on frayed charm, lies, occasional luck and knowing when to hide. Smith has been on a 4-5 day drunk precipitated by the death of the hotel’s former desk clerk, Hughie. Hughie’s replacement (Frank Wood) greets him with all the personality and interest of a stick of furniture.
The gambler is exhausted, running on fumes. Habitually expansive, unwilling to face the demons of sleep, he talks at the poor desk clerk (and to himself); pacing the lobby, gesticulating, emptying his pockets, trying unsuccessfully to light a saved cigar butt, leaning on the desk in desperate attempt to capture the attention of the new guy. (Small business is beautifully directed and manifest.)
Smith regales the impassive attendant with an habitual mixture of authentic and exaggerated tales of his life, but keeps returning to memories of his relationship with Hughie. The former desk clerk was his touchstone, a kind, sympathetic, gullible man to whom the grifter would return each night making home of impersonal, drafty halls and stained sheets. Text is colorful, realistic, and would probably make a good short story.
Successfully inhabiting this play’s protagonist would be a tour de force. Some of our best actors have achieved this. In addition to Robards Jr., Ben Gazzara and Brian Dennehey have taken him on. Unfortunately, Forest Whitaker doesn’t hit his stride until two thirds of the way through, collapsed on a bench folding in on himself with despair. Up till then, words come so fast, slick, and one-note, we see neither thought nor fluctuation of feeling. Though Whitaker makes all the right gestures, he doesn’t rivet.
From the point when the actor connects, tears appear to rise from depth. Words get caught in his throat. The cavernous room appears to close in. When the new clerk’s sudden attention and obvious interest in gambling provoke Smith’s resurrection, it’s palpable.
Frank Wood is terrific as the desk clerk. Floating from obtuse lack of focus and reflexive, pacifying response to genuine enthusiasm, he never drops a stitch. With no idea what O’Neill was getting at beyond the character’s waking from the fog of half sleep, we nonetheless find him, though curious, entirely credible.
I’m a fan of Director Michael Grandage. The production is wonderfully manifest. Literal pauses allow its story to settle like a heavy sigh between Smith’s rousing himself from encroaching futility. Not a move is gratuitous. Smith’s action occupies much of the stage remaining natural, often illuminating. Pacing is adroit.
Photos by Marc Brenner
Eugene O’Neill’s Hughie
Featuring Forest Whitaker
With Frank Wood
Directed by Michael Grandage
222 West 45th Street
Through March 27, 2016