Feb 25, 2016
Close your eyes and just listen, and you’ll never recognize the Oscar-winning actor now making his Broadway debut at the Booth Theatre.
Never mind that Forest Whitaker’s distinctly textured baritone has added authority and nuance to a range of complex and sometimes outsize characters, among them real-life legends as different as Charlie Parker and Idi Amin (for which he earned the Academy Award). Erie Smith, Whitaker’s role in a new revival of Eugene O’Neill’s Hughie (* * * out of four stars) that opened Thursday, is, in contrast, a diminished figure.
Whitaker makes this clear from the beginning, as Erie enters the lobby of the rundown hotel in midtown Manhattan that he calls home. “I’m an old timer in this fleabag,” he tells the Night Clerk, who’s apparently new. Erie’s voice sounds higher and more nasal than Whitaker’s does normally, and he wields it with a New York accent (though Erie says he’s from Pennsylvania) and a strained sense of self-assurance, suggesting a bit player in a Damon Runyon tale.
It is, in fact, 1928, in the wee hours of one morning, and Erie is returning from a bender — instigated, he says, by the recent death of the Night Clerk’s predecessor, who was named Hughie. A gambler who plainly hasn’t prospered, Erie rattles on, veering from boastful blarney to mawkishness that belies his insistence he’s not a “sap.” His fear, he tells his captive audience — the Night Clerk, who seems mostly indifferent, when not distracted — is that his luck has faltered and died along with Hughie.
In one hour-long act, Hughie touches on themes of social alienation and lost hope that O’Neill explored more famously, and at far greater length, in The Iceman Cometh. The dusky, cavernous set designed by Christopher Oram for this production, with noticeable cracks in its cement ceiling, certainly hints at the kind of living purgatory depicted in that epic.
British director Michael Grandage, who has culled vigorous Broadway performances from stars such as Daniel Radcliffe and Jude Law, emphasizes the play’s bleak intimacy here. Whitaker’s co-star, stage veteran Frank Wood, delivers the Night Clerk’s relatively few lines with both wry nods to his repressed impatience and a sense of fundamental decency.