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A CurtainUp Review

What a dead dump, about as homey as a morgue — Erie
Forest Whitaker, Frank Wood in Background
Lauded film actor Forest Whitaker is making his Broadway debut in Eugene O'Neill's Hughie, a one-hour play in which his character Erie Smith is a forlorn down-on-his-luck gambler/race track habitué and a runner for big shots who talks the head off the captive if not quite captivated night clerk in the lobby of a rundown New York City hotel. Close to but not quite a monologue as the clerk, played by the terrific Frank Wood, is obliged to respond periodically to the rambling but persistent rant of the self-deluding orator who can't seem to call it a night.

Short and not really a play at all, Hughie is remembered best by those who saw it on Broadway twenty years ago in a production in which Al Pacino, then at the top of his game, complimented the dreary text with the brilliantly quirky and eccentric tricks and tics that he still had commendably under control. There are others who recall its first production in 1964 with the acclaimed O'Neill interpreter Jason Robards. Brian Denehy, a frequent and superb O'Neill interpreted, has played Erie at several prestigious out of town productions, twice paired with other short plays.

Understandably Whitaker, under the direction of Michael Grandage, takes a totally different path to validate Erie's need for vindicating his own self image as well as re-validating himself as an important resident to the new night clerk. In short, he is a loser who needs a break. But first, he needs a sounding board.

It is 1928 and Whitaker looks quite dapper in a three piece suit and a sporty hat. His manner is cautiously authoritative as he enter the lobby in the late hours of what has not been a good day. He explains to the clerk the reason for his recent losing streak. As he see it, his lack of luck immediately followed the recent death and subsequent funeral of the hotel's previous night clerk named Hughie. Ironically named Charlie Hughes, the new night clerk's air of indifference, as he remains seated behind the desk throughout the play, is palatable. Charlie is inclined to politely acknowledge Erie's blabbing mostly about his relationship with the deceased Hughie.

There is nothing notably askew or visibly in turmoil about Erie's behavior as he talks, paces, stalls, sits and makes periodic trips to the lobby's water cooler. It is, in fact, a rather dull spectacle. There is also nothing in Whitaker's body language or speech to suggest that he needs anything more than seeing if this new night clerk might not fill the void left by Hughie.

Erie is prompted by no more than Charlie's barely bemused attitude and his own need for a compassionate listener to regale with his sexual exploits with the occasional tramps he brought back to the hotel as well as with the girls from the Follies that he claims to have had. To hear Erie tell it, the married-with-children Hughie lived vicariously through him, even inviting him to his home — a one-time only excursion that proved disastrous.

At the performance I caught, Whitaker seemed to be on his way toward a slicker and more polished characterization than was yet visible, not quite coming to terms with his character. However, I would expect that the nerves and uncertainties that punctuated some of his lines and actions will soon be addressed.

What should have been addressed is the distracting and often intruding underscoring of scenes by the otherwise excellent composer-sound designer Adam Cork. Since the use of familiar street sounds was hugely effective it should have sufficed. Besides the front desk, awesome is the word for the long-lost elegance of the now dingy hotel lobby with its ornate but no longer in use elevator, the grand staircase and chandeliers that has been spectacularly designed by Christopher Oram. It's all dimly reflected through designer Neil Austin's atmospheric almost haunted lighting.

While many people, this writer included, care about the neglect and demise of architectural treasures. But why should we care about the aging gofer who artfully tries to maneuver and charm Charlie into his own mostly fantasy world. Hughie is far from the Olympian worlds that O'Neill created in Strange Interlude , Mourning Becomes Electra, The Iceman Cometh and Long Day's Journey Into Night, It fits even more tenuously in the canon of his many one act plays. When O'Neill once said about the play that it was written more to be read than staged, he might have added "and more to be mourned than mounted."

Hughie by Eugene O'Neill
Directed by Michael Grandage

Cast: Frank Wood (Night Clerk), Forest Whitaker (Erie Smith)
Set and Costume Design: Christopher Oram
Lighting Design: Neil Austin
Composer & Sound Designer: Adam Cork
Production Stage Manager: Peter Wolf
Running Time: 1 hour no intermission
Booth Theatre, 222 W. 45th Street
Tickets:$2500 to $149.00
Telecharge: (212) 239 - 6200
Performances: Tues., Wed., Thurs., Evenings at 7:30 pm; Fri., and Sat. Eves at 8 pm; Wed. and Sat. mats at 2 pm; Sun. mat at 3 pm.
From 02/05/16 Opened 02/25/16; closing 6/12/16--to an early grave with 3/27/16 closing fter just 55 performances
Review by Simon Saltzman based on performance 02/20/16
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