Feb 26, 2016
Eugene O’Neill’s 1942 play Hughie is a moody character study about the comforts of self-deception as a buffer against bleak reality. That theme had been addressed within the epic frame of O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh, written three years earlier and clocking in at five times the length of this plotless 55-minute one-act. Such a distilled treatment can’t come close to the harrowing experience of that maximalist tragedy, in which the refuge of pipe dreams is so decisively shattered. In Hughie, the central character’s purgatorial imprisonment in empty boasts and fragile illusions is ongoing, generating more muted drama.
Forest Whitaker is the production’s marquee name, starring as Erie Smith, a Broadway barfly and horse player camped out in a rundown hotel on midtown Manhattan’s West Side on and off for 15 years. He has kept his self-pity and sense of defeat at bay through the glorified accounts of his shabby existence that he shared with the recently deceased night clerk. Whitaker conveys the tireless braggadocio but also the pathos and creeping desperation in this unquiet character, a classic O’Neill type who plasters over the void in his life with exaggerations and lies. With his sleepy eyes, soulful voice and fluttering hands, Whitaker is a superb actor who can wear sorrow like a baggy overcoat. However, as watchable as he is, the real star of Michael Grandage’s production is the design team.
The play is set in the small hours of a summer night in 1928, and Christopher Oram’s set — magnificent in its corroded dignity — could almost be the physical embodiment of America sliding into the Great Depression. A spacious hotel lobby, bathed in the ghostly glow of green neon signage, this is a place that was once respectable, maybe even elegant, but has fallen into dusty decay. The elevator is out of order, the lobby seating is worn and where the woodwork of the reception desk and the railings of the imposing staircase no doubt once gleamed like the fixtures of every well-run establishment, a general air of shoddiness makes it clear those days are over.
Lighting designer Neil Austin casts a murky pall over the scene with the smoky interior illumination, filtering the outside world through the revolving doors and leadlight windows above them. Adam Cork completes the atmospheric picture with a mix of rueful music and muffled noise, from traffic and sirens to the rumble of passing subways. The play is essentially a monologue, its rich early-20th-century vernacular designed to be read as much as staged; Grandage and his team of frequent collaborators have honored the inherent theatricality of the slender piece while fortifying it with an immersive cinematic presentation.
When Erie staggers into this shadowy foyer, wearing a dapper suit and hat that have seen better days, he at first seems interested only in picking up his key and heading upstairs to bed. But he can’t resist a captive audience, even if he gets no encouragement from the new night clerk, Charlie Hughes (Frank Wood), who greets him with dull-eyed detachment. Erie proceeds to share details of his special relationship with the hotel employee’s longtime predecessor, Hughie.
He’s coming off a five-day bender since Hughie’s funeral, supposedly hitting the town with a blond knockout who took him to the cleaners. His luck has turned to the point where he hasn’t won a single bet; he claims he’s been jinxed ever since Hughie was hospitalized. But with a dogged defensiveness that seems designed as much to convince himself as the uninterested Charlie, Erie insists: “Something always turns up for me. I was born lucky. I ain’t worried.”
First produced in Sweden in 1958, five years after O’Neill’s death, the play was not staged in English until 1963, when Burgess Meredith played Erie in Britain. It was done on Broadway in 1964 with Jason Robards, in 1975 with Ben Gazzara and in 1996 with Al Pacino. Brian Dennehy starred in a double-bill pairing of Hughie with Krapp’s Last Tape, by Samuel Beckett, which played at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival and Chicago’s Goodman Theatre but fell through before its planned Broadway engagement in 2010. O’Neill’s play is the kind of soul-scraping plunge that serious actors love, requiring a finely tuned balance between outer swagger and gnawing inner fear, sculpted out of evocative, rhythmic language. However, its rewards for the audience — particularly one paying today’s inflated Broadway prices — are more low-key.
Grandage — whose screen-directing debut, Genius, premiered at the Berlinale this month — has had some of his biggest successes with dramatic two-handers, notably Frost/Nixon and Red. The dynamic in Hughie is trickier in that one character, Charlie, is pretty much a cipher. But the reliable Wood keeps us guessing about the degree to which the laconic night clerk’s responses to Erie are dictated by professional courtesy, or toward the end, by the faintest stirrings of pity.
Erie’s motivations are more transparent, conveyed by Whitaker with admirable restraint. The actor is a natural storyteller, which is what this verbose role requires. As Erie rambles on with his patronizing recollections of Hughie — and the vicarious escape from a life of married monotony that his adventures supposedly provided for the late-night clerk — the suspicion arises that Hughie was no more genuinely impressed by his embroidered exploits than Charlie. Deep down, Erie knows this, which means he’s grieving for himself more than Hughie.
The play’s emotional charge remains subdued, but there’s lingering melancholy in Erie’s painstaking efforts to forget that his gorgeous Follies girls are cheap tramps, his massive paydays are minor flukes and the high life he’s living is more often an intoxicated stupor on the pathetic fringes of the big-money rackets. Without Hughie or a willing replacement, he’d be forced to acknowledge that his life is one of emptiness and solitude.