The most intriguing element in the new production of O’Neill’s Hughie, which marks Forest Whitaker’s Broadway debut, is Christopher Oram’s set. This is not just because the hotel lobby is meticulously detailed; it also serves as an apt metaphor for the play – a dusty relic now, but never truly grand even at its peak.
It’s 1928 and Erie Smith (Whitaker), a small-time gambler and master of malarkey, walks into the Times Square hotel where he lives, after a five-day drinking binge, which we learn was his way of mourning the death of Hughie, the hotel’s night clerk. Erie stops to talk to the new night clerk, Charlie Hughes (Frank Wood.) Much of what Erie talks about over the course of the play is about Hughie. Erie misses Hughie, because Hughie listened to him, acted like his pal, and was a co-conspirator in Erie’s project of convincing himself that he is a winner in life, despite concrete evidence to the contrary:
“…The bigger I made myself the more he lapped it up. I went easy on him at first. I didn’t lie – not any more’n a guy naturally does when he gabs about the bets he wins and the dolls he’s made. But I soon see he was cryin’ for more, and when a sucker cries for more, you’re a dope if you don’t let him have it….[I]f every guy along Broadway who kids himself was to drop dead there wouldn’t be nobody left.”
It soon becomes clear that Erie hopes to turn the new night clerk into his new Hughie.
O’Neill’s short play, which is essentially a 60-minute monologue, was not produced on Broadway until 1964, a decade after the playwright’s death. It’s not clear that O’Neill ever wanted Hughie produced. Of course, Long Day’s Journey into Night was also produced posthumously, and we know O’Neill did not want that produced. But Hughie is no Long Day’s Journey into Night. The one-act play received lukewarm reviews on its Broadway debut. “One would guess that the author, even if he liked what he had done, had grave doubts that it added anything to what he said with more penetration and richness of texture in The Iceman Cometh,” critic Howard Taubman wrote upon the opening of the original Broadway production, which starred Jason Robards. (O’Neill reportedly wrote Hughie in 1941, some five years before The Iceman Cometh debuted on Broadway.)
The current Hughie, which is scheduled to run through June 12 at the Booth Theater, is its fourth Broadway production, and to be fair, Hughies 2 and 3 fared better with the critics — “a tour de force for that fine actor Ben Gazzara” (Clive Barnes in 1975); “a full, richly eccentric and satisfying evening of theater…a star turn that serves America’s most grandly obsessed playwright and allows us to see what (Al) Pacino can do, as both the director and an actor, when he disciplines his sometimes raging talents.” (Vincent Canby in 1996.)
It is not so satisfying this time around: The character’s self-delusion seems obvious, the stories he tells not especially vivid, the relative slightness of O’Neill’s effort tilting it towards a theatrical exercise (even while the $149 for an orchestra seat comes out to almost $2.50 a minute.) The audience is in danger of identifying too closely with the night clerk, who stops listening, his mind drifting, while Erie prattles on.
I’m reluctant to blame all this on Whitaker, a versatile film actor best known for his starring roles in The Crying Game, The Last King of Scotland, and, most recently, The Butler. He has his moments, such as his subtle expressions of expectation and then disappointment when the night clerk isn’t as responsive as Erie would like.
One can’t completely fault the production either, directed by Michael Grandage, the former artistic director of the terrific Donmar Warehouse in London, and Tony-winning director of Red and a half dozen other Broadway plays and musicals.
At one point, Erie stops talking….and eerie takes over, courtesy of sound designer Adam Cork’s original music, and Neil Austin’s superb lighting design. During this brief interlude, which seems to suggest in an instant the passage of the day from sunrise to sunset, it struck me that Erie’s late night encounter with the night clerk was somehow a metaphor for the passage of his entire life, perhaps even the passage of his way of life. It was a feeling that seemed to add some depth to what I was watching – but the feeling was fleeting. Most of the time, I wondered why Whitaker had selected this particular O’Neill in which to make his Broadway debut.
Broadway producer Darren Bagert sent the script to Whitaker in hopes of luring him back to the stage after a 30 year absence. “I had never heard of it,” the actor told Mark Kennedy of the Associated Press. “It’s almost like doing an original play because it has no preconceptions around it and yet it’s written by this amazing playwright.”
To me, what’s most amazing about this O’Neill script are the stage directions. I’m not being facetious here, although they are so lengthy that they could easily be parodied. But they are also terrifically evocative, supplying the drifting thoughts of the night clerk, who gets to speak just a handful of lines aloud. Here’s a sample, after Erie has just told a joke (the reference to “492” is Erie’s room number at the hotel):
NIGHT CLERK. (His mind has hopped an ambulance clanging down Sixth, and is asking without curiosity: “Will he die, Doctor, or isn’t he lucky?” “I’m afraid not, but he’ll have to be absolutely quiet for months and months.” “With a pretty nurse taking care of him?” “Probably not pretty.” “Well, anyway, I claim he’s lucky. And now I must get back to the hotel. 492 won’t go to bed and insists on telling me jokes. It must have been a joke because he’s chuckling.” He laughs with a heartiness which has forgotten that heart is more than a word used in “Have a heart,” an old slang expression.) Ha—Ha! That’s a good one, Erie. That’s the best I’ve heard in a long time!
Just to be clear – nothing within the parentheses above are spoken on stage, only the line beginning “Ha-Ha!…”
Hughie is more effective as a work of literature – a reading experience – than a star vehicle, at least based on the current production of it. I would love to see the next revival include projections of the stage directions.
Hughie is on stage at the Booth Theater (222 West 45th Street, New York, N.Y. 10036, between 7th and 8th Ave.) through June 12, 2016 Tickets and details
Hughie. By Eugene O’Neill. Directed by Michael Grandage. Featuring Forest Whitaker and Frank Wood. Set and costume design by Christopher Oram. Lighting design by Neil Austin, composer and sound design by Adam Cork. Voice coach Kate Wilson. Reviewed by Jonathan Mandell.