Theater Review: ‘Hughie’

March 7, 2016 1:16 pm Last Updated: March 13, 2016 4:44 pm

NEW YORK—Some people need an audience to be happy, even if it is an audience of one. That one person can become a combination support system, sounding board, and rapt listener, who is someone to regale with tales about the money you’ve won, the places you’ve been, and the companions you’ve enjoyed.

So it is in Eugene O’Neill ‘s dramatic one-act work “Hughie,” first performed on Broadway in 1964. Academy Award-winner Forest Whitaker stars in the current revival, making his Broadway debut.

Whitaker shows Erie to be a loser, who would do anything rather than face the truth of who he is.

The story takes place in the lobby of a third-rate New York City hotel in the summer of 1928. It is a place with faded carpets and paint peeling off the walls.

As the early morning hours drag on, the Night Clerk (Frank Wood) sits behind the front desk with basically nothing do to and very much liking that state of affairs. In walks longtime hotel guest Erie Smith (Whitaker).

Erie, who hails from Erie, Pennsylvania—hence the moniker—is a gambler, a racetrack tout, hustler, and occasional petty criminal. He stays here when he’s not following the action around the country or moving in higher circles when he’s flush. At least that’s how he tells it.

Erie is just coming off a five-day drunk, set off by the recent death of the title character, the former night clerk and aforementioned audience for Erie.

Hughie, an apparent milquetoast of a man, had a shrew of a wife who kept him on a very short leash. He had been completely fascinated by everything Erie had to say. The two sometimes shot dice on the hotel desk. Hughie may have just been doing his part to keep Erie happy, which is exactly what hotel employees are supposed to do for paying guests.

Now, not only is Erie mourning Hughie’s passing, he’s also been unable to win at dice, cards, or horses since the death. Erie believes Hughie to have been his personal good luck charm.

Basically a one-person monologue, “Hughie” offers a devastating look at loneliness and our need for someone to look up to us in order to make ourselves appear more important than we actually are.

(L–R)  Night Clerk (Frank Wood) and Erie Smith (Forest Whitaker) connect a play about loneliness.  (Marc Brenner)
(L–R) Night Clerk (Frank Wood) and Erie Smith (Forest Whitaker) connect a play about loneliness. (Marc Brenner)

While we have no way of knowing how many of Erie’s stories are true—probably less than half—he is clearly a very sad, very lonely, and very insignificant man. Someone no one would miss if he were gone.

Any glory days Erie might of actually had are like the glory days of the hotel, far in the past.

Some of the most poignant moments of the play occur when Erie is sitting in the hotel lobby and looking up at the long staircase that leads to his room. The hotel elevator is broken and probably hasn’t worked in years, and he regards the prospect of walking up those stairs as akin to climbing the gallows to his execution. The thought of spending the next few hours alone with only his thoughts to keep him company terrify him.

At the same time, O’Neill also shows that the human spirit ultimately survives and remarkably adapts to changing situations. For when two complete strangers stumble over a common interest or shared enjoyment, a connection that both need may very well result.

In this way, the playwright returns to the subject of “pipe dreams,” a phrase that took center stage in his work “The Iceman Cometh,” a play that shows how important it is for people to have something to believe in, even if it is a lie.

Whitaker, who reportedly had problems with his lines during the early previews, seemed relatively comfortable as Erie the night I attended. He showed Erie to be a loser, who would do anything rather than face the truth of who he is.

A major problem in the play, ironically enough, is with the role of the Night Clerk.

Whitaker does take a few minutes to really get going in the role, as the actor’s interactions with Wood, especially early on, are rather flat. It’s not until Erie starts taking about Hughie and their times together that Whitaker begins to make Erie really come alive.

A major problem in the play, ironically enough, is with the role of the Night Clerk. The role is seemingly small, but ultimately very vital to the story.

The clerk’s actual name is “Charlie Hughes,” one of several connections linking him to Hughie—at least in Erie’s mind.

Unfortunately, Charlie is presented as so much of a cipher that we’re never allowed to get inside his head. When eventually he does begin to interact with Erie, we can’t help but wonder what Charlie’s motive is or what it all means.

The fault is not so much in Wood’s performance as in Michael Grandage’s direction. Grandage is unable to make the almost different planes of existence Erie and Charlie inhabit effectively merge.

Despite the problems in its execution, O’Neill’s messages still shine through powerfully.

The immense set by Christopher Oram helps to show just how small both Erie and Charlie are in the scheme of things. Subdued lighting by Neil Austin and excellent sound design by Adam Cork are also a big plus.

It was recently announced that the show will be closing at the end of March, instead of its originally scheduled run through June. This is really a shame, for while by no means perfect, this production of “Hughie” is still very much worth a look.

‘Hughie’
Booth Theatre
222 W. 45th St.
Tickets: 212-239-6200 or Telecharge.com
Running Time: 1 hour, 5 minutes (no intermission)
Closes: March 27

Judd Hollander is a member of the Drama Desk and a reviewer for stagebuzz.com