Hughie is a bit of a stepchild in the O’Neill canon. An hourlong character portrait of a small-time Runyonesque hustler, it’s from the same period as O’Neill’s mature, full-length autobiographical masterworks The Iceman Cometh, Moon for the Misbegotten, and Long Day’s Journey Into Night (see review). The scope is miniature here, just chatty, rootless Erie Smith and the conversation he makes with the watchful hotel night clerk, as he wonders about his loss of luck since the death of the predecessor clerk, Hughie. But we get O’Neill’s ear for rough street poetry, and his feeling for the ways we poor humans kid ourselves to keep going. And now we get a legendary actor in the role, Forest Whitaker.
Whitaker plays a very generalized Erie Smith almost entirely on one note, a genial rube who thinks he’s wise, with a very generalized need to talk, never quite making the Broadway patois of the day fully his own. The aimless halting phrasing becomes tiring, without the flashing intelligence and sensitivity Whitaker has brought to so many movie roles so unforgettably. We get a vivid walk-on’s worth of character. To some extent, that’s all Eugene O’Neill has provided in this little sketch; this is no Long Day’s Journey after all. But there is a full, lost man there to explore, with an evident love of action and an aversion to solitude.
The set is a magnificent answer to the question of how you do a two-person near monologue on a big Broadway stage. We get the full faded glory of the old hotel lobby, complete with neon outside and painted over cast iron architectural flourishes. Even the light feels dusty.
Frank Wood is completely convincing as Hughes, the new clerk who has replaced Hughie, zoned out patiently at the front desk even as the audience is finding their seats. He has a real life and the lowest of expectations, a real wife and children he keeps fed through his cultivated ability to stay pleasantly unengaged for hours on end. He listens without quite hearing, a neat trick for the duration of a whole show, worth appreciating even though Erie gets almost all the lines.
I can’t say it was just an off night. I went early in previews, then again weeks later after the opening, in the hope that Whitaker would have newly tapped into Erie’s blood flow, felt his fears and swagger and found his impulse to engage the night clerk and his specific need to avoid his hotel room. The performance was unchanged, so presumably this is the Erie that Whitaker means us to see. My guest stood at the ovation, respectful of the achievement, as did many others.