by Bobby McGuire
Watching Hughie, director Michael Grandage’s cleverly understated production of Eugene O’Neill’s late career one-act play, brought to mind a flight I took a few years ago. Ticketed in the dreaded middle seat on a sold-out plane, I had a rather large passenger passed out on the aisle seat to my left and an incessantly chattering passenger to my right at the window. The plane was stuck on the tarmac with the “fasten seat belt” sign on. Clearly I wasn’t going anywhere.
Such is the fate of Hughes (Frank Wood), the laconic new third-shift desk clerk of a seedy Midtown hotel described by O’Neill as “a third class dump catering to the catch-as-catch-can trade.” Stuck at his desk in the early hours of the morning, he encounters Erie Smith (Forest Whitaker) for the first time. Erie, a heavy-drinking small time gambler, is back from a five-day drinking bender aimed at drowning his sorrows over the death of his best friend, the former night clerk Hughie (Hughes’ predecessor).
“Best friend” might be a stretch here—as the play progresses, we learn that Hughie was most likely Erie’s only friend, and probably had the patience of Job. This is because Erie is at worst exhausting and at best depressing. In an attempt to make his life appear covetable, habitual drunkard Erie brags of his inflated gambling winnings and recounts tales of parading Follies girls (read prostitutes) past Hughie. If the play was written in the modern day, Erie would be the type of guy whose phone calls are destined to end up unanswered voicemails. If the role of best friend is open, the purposefully detached Hughes shows no interest in attending the casting call.
Making his Broadway debut, Academy Award-winner Forest Whitaker appears to have taken a cue from playwright O’Neill who described the character as having a “sentimental softness” incongruous to the hard-boiled picture of a gambler. His Erie is desperate to be liked as he wears out his welcome quickly with Hughes. If Whitaker is guilty of anything on stage, it’s portraying Erie as perhaps too kind and affable. Lacking anything resembling a backbone, the audience is left to wonder how this man with neither wit, skill or luck, has managed to survive as long as he has. Still, whether his character is processing a difficult emotion, concocting his next tall tale, or fumbling though a pocket of I.O.U.’s, Whitaker is fascinating to watch.
Tony Award-winner (Side Man) Frank Wood’s performance as the disinterested Hughes begins 20 minutes before the curtain, as the audience is being seated. Staring blankly into space with no stage business, it’s clear that his character has already conceded defeat in life. As Whitaker takes the stage and goes on what is ostensibly a 50-minute monologue, Wood delivers a masterclass in the difficult art of active non-listening.
An indictment of the American dream, Hughie is laden with metaphors at almost every turn. Hughes in his dead end job is stuck in overnight purgatory with Erie, a gambler with nothing left to bet (we later learn he’s hiding from creditors looking to cash in on his sizable gambling debt). Neither appears to have options. Any thought of mobility is a pipe dream at best.
This is conveyed with a subtle hand by director Michael Grandage, who orchestrates the plotless piece as though something might happen in spite of the overall hopelessness of the situation and surroundings. To further drive the point home, the elevator in Christopher Oram’s appropriately derelict set is out of order and the stairs look like more effort than their worth. If the lobby is this depressing how awful must the rooms upstairs be?
As a playwright, O’Neill aged like few others and published his best work at the end of his career. Like Long Day’s Journey Into Night and The Iceman Cometh, Hughie deals with existential themes. However, unlike the aforementioned plays that take three to five hours to perform, Hughie says it all in 60 minutes. You may not night like the protagonist, but you won’t be stuck with him too long either.
222 West 45th Street
Through June 12
Bobby McGuire is a freelance editor and writer. Follow him on Instagram at @bobbbymcgnyc.