March 6, 2016
Relative to Eugene O’Neill’s body of work, “Hughie” is a mere nugget—a fleeting story packaged as an elongated monologue. Written 1941, it marked just one within an array of single-act works. And yet this 60-minute play was the only to survive and never made it to the stage during O’Neill’s lifetime.
The acclaimed Forest Whitaker makes his Broadway debut as the central character, Erie Smith, giving a noteworthy performance in this modest role. Set in 1928 New York City, Smith is a drunken gambler hiding out in a seedy West Side hotel. Brief musical interludes (Adam Cork) take on an eerie tone with an occasional siren humming by, a reminder of the early hours in which Smith has stumbled back home.
While putzing around the hotel lobby, Smith spews into a lengthy tangent for an audience of one: the new night clerk, Charlie Hughes (played by Frank Wood). Smith briefly mistakes him for his recently passed “old pal” and confidant, Hughie, soon realizing Charlie is in fact his replacement. A nostalgic account of his friend Hughie unfolds, riddled with personal tall tales of his many “dolls” and conquests and enviable gambling success.
But Smith isn’t as well-off as he claims, simultaneously succumbing to vulnerable moments of forgetfulness, loneliness, aimlessly sifting through the contents of his pockets, and admitting a problematic losing streak since Hughie’s death. He’s a lost man missing a friend, a friend who—much like this new night clerk—found himself in that role simply by matter of circumstance. It’s this, the underlying self-alienation of Smith’s character, which Whitaker taps into most expertly.
“Hughie” is straightforward in its unadorned story of loss and life, more deeply highlighting the human experience by simply taking the story to the stage to showcase a man in the midst of both. Meanwhile, Christopher Oram’s set is intricate and beautiful, though it can only serve as a passive frame for O’Neill’s words; for action is quite scarce. It’s up to the audience to discover the nuances and read into the complexity of Smith’s character to gain the full “Hughie” experience.
“Hughie,” directed by Michael Grandage, will have its final performance at Broadway’s Booth Theatre on Sunday, March 27, 2016.
EYE ON THE ARTS, NY – Jenny Thompson