222 West 45th St. between Broadway & Eighth Ave.
Wednesday - Sunday (and some Tuesday nights) through March 27, $25- $149
Written in 1941 but not staged until 1958, five years after his death, Eugene O’Neill’s one-act Hughie features a main character who seems to have walked right out of The Iceman Cometh. In the sixty-minute show’s fourth trip to Broadway, Forest Whitaker portrays Erie Smith, a role previously played by Jason Robards, Ben Gazzara, Brian Dennehy, Al Pacino, Richard Schiff, and Burgess Meredith, who originated the part in English in 1963. Erie is an alcoholic gambler who has returned to the ratty, formerly grand Broadway hotel where he lives following an extended bender, mourning the death of his beloved night clerk and sounding board, Hughie. As embodied by Whitaker, who is taking the stage for the first time since shortly after college, Erie is a hulking presence who speaks in fits and starts, sharing his hopes and dreams, failures and memories with the new clerk, Charlie Hughes (Frank Wood), who is not exactly thrilled at being bothered in the middle of the night. Erie rambles on about whatever comes into his head while Hughes barely says a word. Set in 1928 on the cusp of the Great Depression, Hughie is more a character study than a fully realized play; in fact, it was meant to be part of a cycle of one-acts, called By Way of Obit, that were essentially monologues about a dead person. In a letter to critic George Jean Nathan, O’Neill explained, “Via this monologue you get a complete picture of the person who died — his or her whole life story — but just as complete a picture of the life and character of the narrator.” O’Neill ultimately destroyed all of the other in-process one-acts but saved Hughie.
Oscar winner and UNESCO special envoy Whitaker (The Last King of Scotland, Fast Times at Ridgemont High) was rumored to have had trouble remembering his lines during previews (which has also been said of other recent Hollywood stars on Broadway, including Pacino and Bruce Willis), but he has settled into the role, taking command of the lovable loser, who represents an America about to hit free fall. Tony winner Wood (Side Man, Clybourne Park) is a fine foil for Erie, already onstage when the theater doors open, staring emptily into an abyss. Costume and set designer Christopher Oram, who has won Tonys for Red and Wolf Hall: Parts One & Two, has created a sensational hotel lobby, huge and dim, creaky and musty, its former splendor, perhaps like Erie’s, hovering in the dankness, enhanced by Neil Austin’s lighting and Adam Cork’s original music. Tony-winning director Michael Grandage (The Cripple of Inishmaan, King Lear) keeps it all from becoming boring, although even at a mere sixty minutes it feels repetitive and a little too long. Hughie was scheduled to run into July but recently posted an early closing notice of March 27 because of low advance ticket sales. Perhaps theatergoers were expecting more fireworks, or they were turned off by the preview problems, or maybe they don’t want to spend upwards of $149 on an hour-long show. Of course, we don’t pay to see movies by the minute, nor do we buy art by the yard, to paraphrase Max von Sydow’s character in Hannah and Her Sisters.