Academy Award-Winner Forest Whitaker Stars in Eugene O’Neill’s Hughie

Hughie 2

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 and Drama League 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 of its short length, 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 Tony and Drama League Awards 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 huge 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 Frank 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

This review originally appeared on Center on the Aisle

A Little Bit of This; A Little Bit of That

With the new fall season in full swing, there is so much to see and talk about. So in this post I’ll give a few “quickie” reviews of shows I’ve seen recently.

The Winslow Boy: American Airlines Theatre (Roundabout) (11-20-13)

This excellent Old Vic production is a revival of a Terence Rattigan play that originally premiered on Broadway in 1947. It is based on a true story about a young boy who is expelled from his British military school for allegedly stealing a small sum of money from a classmate. He swears his innocence—and his father risks both his health and his family’s future to pursue a court case in his son’s defense. Is the father foolishly obsessed with a futile battle? Is the boy innocent or guilty? How far should one go in pursuit of justice? The play doesn’t necessarily answer these questions, but it is never less than riveting throughout its 2 hour and 40 minute run time.

Should you go? Absolutely. The cast, direction, sets, even the costumes, are all first rate. In less capable hands, the play could easily become trivial or tiresome, but this cast, especially Michael Cumpsty (Desmond Curry), Roger Rees (Arthur Winslow), and Alessandro Nivola (Sir Robert Morton) convey every nuance of the text through subtle facial expressions and vocal expertise. It really is “theatre” at its best. It’s listed on TDF and at the TKTS booth, so no excuse not to buy a ticket.

The Glass Menagerie: Booth Theatre (10-29-13)

In a nutshell: This is one of our greatest American plays, and this is probably the best production we’re going to see for a long time. Tennessee Williams’ 4-character “memory play” is based on characters from his life: himself, his mother, and his mentally fragile sister Rose. It is a poetic and touching tale of unrealized dreams and unanswered prayers. It is always a privilege to see Cherry Jones, one of the most talented actresses of her generation, perform on stage. She shines, as expected, but it is Zachary Quinto (known to filmgoers as the new Spock) as Williams’ stand-in Tom, who leads the production into the sublime. His performance of Tom’s opening soliloquy, spoken in darkness at the edge of the stage, weaves a spell that lasts through the final curtain: “Yes, I have tricks in my pocket, I have things up my sleeve. But I am the opposite of a stage magician. He gives you illusion that has the appearance of truth. I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion.”

The negative: I didn’t love some of the director’s staging decisions, specifically, Laura’s appearance and exit from inside the sofa (really) which distracted and detracted from the play’s magic, and the use of pantomime for some stage business. But given the beauty of the overall production, let’s not dwell on it.

Should you go? The question should be, “Can you go?” This is a tough ticket, and the Booth is a smallish theatre. The run has just been extended and tickets are sometimes available at the TKTS booth, so go for it. And if you’re the hearty type, snag a $30 standing room ticket, as I did. (You might even be able to grab a seat).

Nothing to Hide: Pershing Square Signature Center (10-9-13)

Here is magic of the more literal kind: sleight of hand. Do you have a spare 75 minutes and a need to escape the pre-Holiday madness that is creeping over NYC? Head on over to 42nd & 10th Avenue where the charming Helder Guimarães and Derek DelGaudio are amusing and amazing audiences with card tricks that go way beyond the ordinary. The 2-man show is brought to us and directed by Renaissance man Neal Patrick Harris, President of the Academy of Magical Arts in CA and—who knew? —a bona fide “magic geek”. The show comes to NYC from a record-breaking run at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles.

These guys come with impressive bona fides: DelGaudio is a Los Angeles-based magician who consults for Walt Disney Imagineering and has been named Close-up Magician of the Year for 2012 and 2013. Guimarães, originally from Portugal and now also based in CA, became the youngest ever World Champion of Card magic in 2006 at the age of 23. They are both charming and adorable (see photo).

Using nothing more than decks of playing cards (and a sock monkey) these two masters of distraction and sleight of hand, with the audience as willing co-conspirators, provide a most pleasant diversion from workaday troubles. They’re working hard, but all you have to do is sit back, relax, and let them fool you.

Should you go? While this is no “important” night at the theatre (see above reviews), it is a well-done production and it’s a lot of fun. These two are pros. (And they come highly recommended by NPH). The show, which is at Signature, but is not a Signature production, has been extended through January 18. Tickets are available through Ticket Central.