THEATER: Booth; 766 seats; $149 top
DIRECTOR: Michael Grandage
STARRING: Forest Whitaker, Frank Wood
Forest Whitaker is blessed with an air of warmth and decency that shines through in film roles like the one he played in "The Butler." Michael Grandage, lauded for his stagings of "Red" and "The Cripple of Inishmaan," has directed him with considerable sensitivity as Erie, the forlorn gambler in Eugene O'Neill's "Hughie." Erie feels abandoned after the death of the hotel clerk who was his only friend and lucky mascot. But Whitaker's warmth can also be a hindrance, as it is when the star, making his Broadway debut, must also convince us that in better days he was a confident and happy-go-lucky sporting man.
Erie Smith is cut from the same cloth as Hickey Hickman, the brassy salesman who preaches salvation to the stewbums at Harry Hope's Saloon in "The Iceman Cometh." But the only audience for Erie's pipe dream about his comeback as a Broadway tinhorn is Charlie Hughes (Frank Wood), the dour night clerk at a fleabag hotel in Times Square.
In Christopher Oram's astonishing set design, the eerie hotel where Charlie mans the front desk in moody silence looks more like a lunatic asylum than a safe haven from Broadway in the summer of 1928. The atmosphere is so thick with depression, it's no wonder Erie puts off going to his room. It's the perfect graveyard for the death of a man's dreams.
Like the once-grand hotel, Whitaker's washed-up gambling man has seen better days. At one time, when his shabby suit and battered fedora were fresh and new, the outfit must have looked snazzy. But it's as worn out and tired as he is, and no longer up to the pretense of being flash.
There's not really much of an arc to this one-hour play, which is essentially an extended monologue from a man who is running--and talking--for his life. Erie owes money to the loan sharks who literally collect an arm and a leg from deadbeats, and he needs a safe hideout. He's not asking for a handout, or even sympathy from the sullen night clerk.
Erie wants his good luck back, a need made palpable in Whitaker's heartfelt performance. His late friend, Hughie, was also his personal four-leaf clover, and since he died, Erie's good fortune has gone bad. Wood's immobile face and poker-stiff spine are strong indications that Charlie is not only aware of Erie's desperate need, but also determined to resist it.
There's no denying the suffering humanity O'Neill saw in poor Erie. But Whitaker's hangdog vulnerability makes it tough to believe in Erie's better days and besides, there's no pretending that "Hughie" is much more than a warm-up for "Iceman," a far more devastating study of life as living death.
CREDITS: A Darren Bagert, Michael Grandage Company, Adam Zotovich, Joan Raffe & Jhett Tolentino, Arielle Tepper Madover, Martin McCallum, Debbie Bisno, CJ E&M, Jeffrey Finn, Hagemann Rosenthal Associates, Stacey Mindich, Bob Boyett, Seaview Prods., Taylor Weinstein Theatricals, Julie Boardman, Falkenstein Simons, Michael Watt, and Shubert Organization production of a play in one act by Eugene O'Neill. Opened Feb. 25, 2016. Reviewed Feb. 20. running TIME: ONE HOUR. DIRECTED BY Michael Grandage. SET & COSTUMES, Christopher Oram; lighting, Neil Austin; MUSIC & SOUND, Adam Cork.
CAST. Forest Whitaker, Frank Wood