Eugene O’Neill only rarely strayed from the thematic gloom so indicative of his most recognizable plays like Long Day’s Journey into Night and The Iceman Cometh. But in Hughie, a one-act written late in his career, the playwright seems much more amenable to the possibility – if only ever a possibility – of redemption. Whereas Long Day’s Journey and Iceman dwell ruefully in gloom for upwards of four and five hours, Hughie gives us only one hour of two people making small talk in a hotel lobby. Despite how much of an outlier it is in the O’Neill oeuvre, it is a delicate, late-career masterpiece currently receiving a fine Broadway revival with Forest Whitaker in the lead role.
Set in the lobby of a less-than-stylish Manhattan hotel in 1928, the play takes place in real time, as Erie Smith (Whitaker) arrives after several days of binge drinking. Before heading up to his regular room, Erie decides to chat up the new night clerk (Frank Wood). The hotel guest attempts to regale the clerk with stories of his highs and lows in gambling and carousing, but the clerk seems to care very little. Erie has long monologues directed at the clerk, who at first only responds when he notices that his counterpart is not speaking and appears to look at him expectantly. Even then Erie is greeted only with pat, disinterested responses. The stage directions in O’Neill’s script provide long narrations of the clerk’s thought process, as he dwells on his aching feet and the sounds of the busy New York street outside, but we are privy to none of that in performance. Like Erie Smith, we experience only peculiar indifference out of this clerk. All the while Smith continues with stories about himself and about his longing for the former night clerk, Hughie, who has recently died. According to Erie, Hughie was a lowly sucker who just loved to hear takes of gambling and carousing. And Erie was happy to satisfy him.
In the end, this is a play about Erie’s desperate need for an audience, something which Whitaker captures excellently. Erie is not just telling the clerk his stories to pass the time. He is telling them so that in responding to them the clerk can bolster the nefarious identity Erie is crafting for himself. Whitaker impresses with his growing desperation over the course of the play’s short duration. This is an actor who understands that Erie absolutely needs this night clerk to recognize and acknowledge him, to fill the void in his life left by Hughie. Whitaker’s counterpart has far fewer lines to deliver, but impresses equally in giving dimension to this seemingly stolid character. The night clerk is a monument of indifference, but Wood succeeds in showcasing the character’s depth.
Excellent performances notwithstanding, the best part of this Hughie is Christopher Oram’s stunning set, dominated by a looming, grand staircase. Occasionally director Michael Grandage gets in the way of the play with curious decisions about passing some time with light and musical interludes, as if he loses his nerve at the helm of a short, uneventful play, but his best work is establishing the interplay between Whitaker and the staircase. At the top of the stairs is Erie’s room, a cell of loneliness in which the verbose braggart will have no audience. This is the worst of all possible scenarios for Erie Smith. Grandage and Whitaker underscore this fear powerfully every time the actor approaches the dangerous precipice of the staircase. Only once will Whitaker make his way past the first step or two, and his slow ascent powerfully punctuates the play’s climax.
A one-hour play seems odd for a Broadway stage, even with a marquee star in the lead role. Certainly it could be tempting to pair it with another one-act like Robert Falls and Brian Dennehy recently did by coupling Hughie with Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape. It could be equally tempting to fill the play out some more by performing O’Neill’s lengthy stage directions, as the Shakespeare Theatre Company did in its production starring Richard Schiff or The Circle in the Square did in a production starring and directed by Al Pacino. But despite a bit of directorial interference, this production deserves full marks for its courage to embrace the play as it is given to us. The effect is to leave us with more of a mysterious haunting: we know next to nothing about this night clerk, and perhaps less about Erie (nothing about his character should make us think he is overly devoted to truth). All we know is that these are two men whose paths have crossed at a time when both lack community. Whether the spark of their union creates that community, and how it affects their wandering lives is the mystery that this production refuses to answer for us.
Hughie is on at Booth Theatre until 27th March 2016. Click here for tickets.