Theatrical deity Eugene O’Neill, whose masterworks continue to
astound and gratify audiences around the globe, reached Broadway in 1920 with Beyond
The Horizon, the first of his four Pulitzer prize plays. He was thirty-two.
Steeped in theater, he had learned his craft from his parents, famous,
self-burdened actors, at the end of the 19th century and in the
early 20th century, a world away from where we are now, and it
shows, inevitably, time and again, in his language, structure, play
development, character delineation. Which left creative director Michael
Grandage to establish mood, atmosphere, as early as possible. Thus, at play’s
beginning, for several minutes, we have been staring at the huge staircase in
the murky depths of a once grand hotel lobby trying to make out the details of
former glory. Slowly, lighting designer Neil Austin brings on the light of
day, eery, portentous, depressed.
Ironically, the play’s brevity, and, of course, because it’s
O’Neill, has brought Hughie to Broadway for the fourth time by major
actors, and here, Forest Whitaker, in his Broadway debut, is superb, exemplary.
Trouble is, Erie Smith, the small time gambler, the central character, is a
nothing. He enters his hotel, the formerly magnificent pile (created by the
gifted designer Christopher Oram), his home – if he has a home – through its
none too clean revolving door in the early morning in New York City, 1928,
steamy summer, a little fan ineffectually whirring away on the front desk for
the benefit of the colossally bored night clerk (pretty stupendous Frank Wood),
the replacement for Hughie, the former night clerk, whose death Erie is mourning
with the aftermath of a five day drunk. Hughie, his good luck charm. Hughie,
his friend. Gone.
Erie is a mess. But the state of Erie’s aged, sharpie finery,
rumpled, bedraggled, is not the reason for his diffidence: it’s because he’s a
Negro and this is 1928 and the new night clerk is very, pasty white, and how do
you make friends – all over again – with a white man, in what’s supposed to be
your home, a hotel that allows a Negro to live there and Erie the only one
around? Needless to say, O’Neill did not write these strictures in his
characteristic voluminous stage directions, but it’s inescapably the core of
the direction for the play chosen by eminent Michael Grandage and of our
familiar, treasured star, Forest Whitaker.
Frank Wood & Forest Whitaker
Production images by Marc Brenner
Whitaker is infinitely faithful to the sad emptiness that is Erie
and gives a remarkable performance, true in its multiple layers, extraordinary
in fashioning O’Neill’s difficult language and its punctuation into a
verisimilitude of human speech. But the human? Erie, like most of us, is not
much. Erie, in his endless attempts to engage, beguile, endear, blames his down
hill slide on the death of Hughie, still hoping against hope that maybe his
luck isn’t all dead but Erie’s underlying sweetness, that sweetness which is
inherently Whitaker, tells us, no such luck. Erie, in his spill of story and
cajolement, shows us that that slide was long in the making.
With the assistance of designer Neil Austin’s silken lighting,
director Grandage punctuates Erie’s monologue—the play is essentially one long
monologue – into three mood divisions which the night clerk simply endures.
He’s heard it all before, here, elsewhere. He doesn’t care. We’re perilously
close to joining him, however, O’Neill’s genius overrides everything but even
the “greats” cannot be great all the time and Hughie, no matter how
beautifully produced, performed, directed, remains a minor note.
Hughie. At the Booth Theatre, Shubert Alley, 222 West 45th
Street. Tickets: $55-$149. 212-239-6200. 60 min. Thru Mar 27.