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Forest Whitaker successfully tackles Eugene O’Neill’s ‘Hughie’ Article From The Washington Post

Forest Whitaker successfully tackles Eugene O’Neill’s ‘Hughie’ Article From The Washington Post

Feb 25, 2016

He talks a pretty good game, does Erie Smith, in Eugene O’Neill’s “Hughie.” As luck would have it, so does the actor who portrays him in the finely-etched revival of the 1942 one-act play that opened Thursday night at the Booth Theatre.

That actor would be the outstanding Forest Whitaker, who demonstrates in his Broadway debut a facility for transformation on a stage as cannily as is revealed in his many screen performances. Under Michael Grandage’s well-calibrated direction, Whitaker trenchantly embodies the main — for all intents, the only — character in this drama, about a small-time horse player with a life so barren his most fervid moments are the ones he spends in a hotel lobby, chattily puffing up his exploits.

The other figure in the hour-long playlet, set in 1928 in the shabby entrance hall of a faded New York City hotel — and magnificently rendered by set and costume designer Christopher Oram — is the night clerk who’s forced to listen to Erie. Or rather, who doesn’t really listen to him. Played with a poker-faced neutrality by Frank Wood, the clerk might as well be a stick of lobby furniture, for all the attention he pays to Erie. Still, for want of anyone else to talk to or anywhere else to go (he may in fact be on the lam from some guys he owes debts to), Erie dawdles by the reception desk.

It’s the ear of Hughie, the former night clerk, now deceased, that Erie misses. Hughie, it appears, bought Erie’s stories, about his big scores at the poker table and with the ladies, and the void created by Hughie’s death leaves a yawning abyss that Erie seeks desperately to fill. The latticework of shadows cast across the set by lighting designer Neil Austin adds to the sense of this cavernous old lobby as a place where Erie can hide, find some relief from the bleakness of his days.

In Whitaker’s eager-to-please though slightly pushy manner, Erie comes across as one of those fellows whose need to disclose overwhelms your ability to retreat. The intermittent nervous giggle betrays a soul of deeper insecurities than he otherwise cares to expose. And yet Erie can’t help but reveal the truth of his situation, the losses and rejections he’s racked up. All of this registers in the countenance of a terrific American actor, who’s found a comfortable home on the stage of the Booth, when the man he plays never truly can.