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Hughie

by Eugene Paul
Theatrical deity Eugene ONeill, 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 plays 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 plays brevity, and, of course, because its ONeill, 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 Eries aged, sharpie finery, rumpled, bedraggled, is not the
reason for his diffidence: its because hes 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
whats supposed to be your home, a hotel that allows a Negro to live there and Erie the only
one around? Needless to say, ONeill did not write these strictures in his characteristic
voluminous stage directions, but its 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 ONeills 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 isnt all dead but Eries 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 Austins silken lighting, director Grandage punctuates
Eries monologuethe play is essentially one long monologue into three mood divisions
which the night clerk simply endures. Hes heard it all before, here, elsewhere. He doesnt

care. Were perilously close to joining him, however, ONeills 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. 212239-6200. 60 min. Thru Mar 27.