By Shari Lifland (@shariontheaisle)
It’s only fitting that Eugene O’Neill’s Hughie is set in a hotel lobby: the acclaimed playwright was born in a hotel—the Barrett House on Broadway and 43rd Street—a stone’s throw from the Booth Theatre, where his one-act, two-hander now plays.
When the audience enters the theatre, an actor (Tony Award winner, Frank Wood) is already on stage. The character billed simply as “Night Clerk” sits, dreamlike and immobile, at the reception desk in the lobby of a faded New York City hotel. It is the wee hours of a morning in summer, 1928. The richly detailed set (by Tony and Olivier Award-winning designer Christopher Oram), looks like a vintage sepia print photo. A barely readable “out of order” sign hangs on the ornate, long idle, elevator. A neon “Hotel” sign is partially visible through the window. Muffled traffic sounds and subdued lighting add to the mood of quiet, otherworldly unease. In sum, as one character describes it, the place is “as homey as a morgue.”
Eventually, a man trudges through the hotel’s revolving door. He is Erie Smith (Academy, Golden Globe, and BAFTA Award-winning actor Forest Whitaker) a small-time gambler and big-time drinker who has been out on a weeks-long bender mourning the death of his friend, the recently deceased former desk clerk, Hughie. Like the hotel, Erie’s best days are behind him. He tells Night Clerk that he hasn’t won a bet since Hughie first went into the hospital, lamenting, “When I lost Hughie, I lost my luck.” Erie restlessly circles the hotel lobby like a dog sniffing out a safe place to lie down. He’s stuck between two equally distasteful alternatives—creditors lurking somewhere outside waiting to rough him up, and his lonely hotel room upstairs.
Most of Hughie’s 60-minute running time comprises Erie’s monologue about his glory days, which he desperately wants to reclaim, delivered to the mostly disinterested Night Clerk. Oddly, we learn that the new clerk’s name is, like his predecessor’s, Hughes. Erie tells him, “Yeah, you’ve got that old look like Hughie had.” Or at least, that’s what Erie would like to believe, because Hughie served a vital function for Erie: he was Erie’s mirror. By repeatedly relating self-aggrandizing stories about his successes with gambling and women to Hughie, Erie created a persona that reflected his personal version of the American Dream. When Hughie died, Erie’s self-important vision died along with him. “I lost my confidence,” he tells Night Clerk. “He gave me my confidence.” Now, with Hughie gone, Erie worries that he may be washed up, or even worse, that he, like Hughie, may cease to exist. Without the gullible Hughie as a sounding board, Erie’s illusions (and his courage to go on) may simply crumble into dust.
Because it runs only 60 minutes, Hughie is not staged often. The current production at the Booth is well worth seeing, thanks to its extremely talented, multiple award-winning cast and creative team. It is a definite star vehicle that provides an opportunity for Whitaker to transfer his formidable cinematic talents to the New York stage. Whitaker, who won Oscar, Golden Globe, and BAFTA Awards for his portrayal of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin in the film The Last King of Scotland, has also received acclaim for roles in Lee Daniels’ The Butler, The Crying Game, and other hit films. In Hughie, the actor uses his large, rangy frame to embody a man who, despite his insistent bravado, is now a shrunken version of his former self. His dandyish three-piece suit seems to hang on his body. And despite his quick smile, he is nervous, ill at ease, and terrified of the future. Whitaker has a natural warmth and charm that serve his character well. His Erie is both believable and touching; as sympathetic as he is pathetic.
Frank Wood, a wonderful New York actor who won a Tony Award for his role in Side Man and was last seen on Broadway in Clybourne Park, makes the most of a minor role. His character exists as an audience for Erie—a would-be replacement for his old confidant. As reflected in his presence on stage before the action begins, Night Clerk is more a part of the set than a flesh and blood character.
For Hughie, director Michael Grandage reunites with his Tony-winning design team from the hit play Red. Christopher Oram’s gorgeous set is so detailed and evocative, it almost becomes a third character in the drama. Adam Cork’s brooding original music and sound design and Neil Austin’s muted and affecting lighting design also play a major part in the play’s success, creating a pervasive, ominous sense of dread and foreboding.
Is O’Neill’s hotel lobby actually Purgatory, a layover between life (the world outside the hotel’s revolving doors) and death (Erie’s room upstairs)? The set prominently features what could easily be regarded as a “stairway to heaven.” And the lead character is named “Erie,” an apt homonym for the play’s “eerie” ambiance. One wonders if Night Clerk is even real. Played with deadpan bemusement by the always excellent Wood, is he perhaps the angel of death, come for Erie? Or just an illusion Erie has created in Hughie’s image in a desperate attempt to survive? Why else would Charlie the Night Clerk share a surname with the departed Hughie of the title? And why, after nearly an hour of polite, almost somnambulant disinterest, does Charlie spring to life, suddenly wildly fascinated (à la Hughie) with Erie’s possible connection to a particular big-time gambler? Only O’Neill can answer these questions, and he passed away in 1953, several years before Hughie’s debut. (He penned Hughie in 1941).
Although Hughie is a slender O’Neill work, compared to his much-lauded epics like Long Day’s Journey into Night, The Iceman Cometh, and Desire Under the Elms, its hotel setting is of particular interest. O’Neill was not only born in a hotel; he also died in one. His own final curtain fell at the Sheraton Hotel in Boston, where his last words were reportedly: “I knew it. I knew it. Born in a hotel room and died in a hotel room.”
Hughie continues at the Booth Theatre through March 27. For information visit: www.hughiebroadway.com.