|Frank Wood and Forest Whitaker in Hughie, directed by Michael Grandage. (Photo: Marc Brenner)|
Hughie is an oddity in the Eugene O’Neill canon. He wrote it in the early forties, around the time he was turning out his glorious – and lengthy – late-career masterpieces, The Iceman Cometh, Long Day’s Journey into Night and A Moon for the Misbegotten, but Hughie is a two-hander with a running length of merely an hour. It doesn’t read like an excerpt from a longer work, but it has a tossed-off quality, and I don’t mean that as a put-down. It’s like something O’Neill might have penned in an afternoon to clear his head while he was working on Iceman: the main character, a solitary fellow named Erie Smith who lives in an antiquated, mostly abandoned Manhattan hotel, isn’t very different from the has-beens who inhabit Harry Hope’s saloon, except that his vice is gambling (of all sorts) rather than alcohol. The other character is the night clerk Erie strikes up a conversation with in the wee hours, in what feels like an increasingly desperate effort to forge the same kind of bond with him that he had with his predecessor, Hughie, who has recently died.
Erie, who’s played by Forest Whitaker in the new Broadway production directed by Michael Grandage, isn’t one of O’Neill’s great dramatic creations, but he’s touching, and you recognize both his loneliness and his tendency to self-delusion from more in-depth characters from his other plays. At first you think that it’s mostly his loneliness that motivates the conversation with the night clerk (Frank Wood), which he sustains even though the man barely seems to be listening to him – that, like the drunks in Iceman, he’s trying to hold off the terrifying moment when he has to climb those stairs to his empty room for the night. And I think that’s at least partly the reason, though it has more to do with his feelings about his relationship with Hughie, whose memory he dwells on. It turns out that Erie, who used to get the inexperienced Hughie to shoot dice with him, feels that his luck has run out since the last clerk’s death, and he’s hoping that he can mold the new guy, Charlie, into a facsimile of Hughie.
This is a mood piece and a character piece, and some fine actors have taken a crack at it. Jason Robards, the greatest of all O’Neill interpreters, was the first American actor to approach it, and he returned to it several times during his career; I saw the TV version he filmed in 1984, but it wasn’t one of his great O’Neill performances – it felt like a compendium of bits of his earlier O’Neills. Al Pacino directed himself in a version at Circle in the Square about a decade ago, and his Erie was theatrical and stirring and very well done. (Brian Dennehy played it at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, but I didn’t see him.) Whitaker isn’t an experienced stage actor, and his physical work is a tad awkward, meandering, but the qualities that distinguish him on screen – his authenticity, his humanity, his soulfulness, his almost operatic intensity – have traveled with him to the live theatre, and they more than compensate for the flaws in his stage technique. (Whitaker gave another affecting performance in the past year as an ex-con struggling to keep straight in a barely released movie called Two Men in Town.)
The production feels somewhat attenuated, with ellipses filled with mood music by Adam Cork that don’t quite work, and I wasn’t convinced by Wood’s performance. (I tend not to be; I can always see him acting.) But Grandage’s favorite designer, Christopher Oram, has built a gorgeous, massive, ghostly set, and it and Neil Austin’s lighting sculpt Whitaker’s presence. He feels like a man pitched terrifyingly at the edge of an abyss, reaching out for a hand to pull him back. This Hughie is not a great evening of theatre, but it lingers in your consciousness.