Not a spark of the blowtorch fury that Forest Whitaker exhibited nine years ago as an Oscar-winning Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland was in evidence February 25 in his Broadway debut at the Booth Theatre—nor, necessarily, should it have been.
Eugene O’Neill’s short, sad, 75-year-old opus, Hughie, confines him to a very low flame for the full 55 minutes. One of O’Neill’s lost souls, he’s a Smith “from Erie, PA”—Erie Smith, he wants you to call him—a fast-talking old sport and gambling man down on his luck at the moment, laying low from loan sharks out to collect an arm and leg, literally. He has returned to what has been his home for the past 15 years—a fleabag hotel in the West 40’s—this summer eve in 1928 in the early a.m. and found a new desk clerk on duty, Charlie Hughes.
Hughes (played by Tony-winning Side Man Frank Wood) is no Hughie, who spent his graveyard shifts listening to Erie’s unbridled braggadocio going on all cylinders, about chasing dreams that will never materialize—until he died (of what, nobody knows, but boredom wasn’t ruled out). His death has sent his earbender off on a five-day drunk, and now Erie is back looking for a new audience, someone to believe in him.
This new guy is polite, professional and parsimonious, but he’s not that guy. He has his own fantasies going on, and they trump Erie’s. It’s suddenly like playing to half a house, and this is confidence-shattering for Erie who feels his luck died with Hughie.
As two-handers go, Hughie barely qualifies as a one-a-half-hander. The desk clerk is little more than slight punctuation for Erie’s torrent of words. What arc there is in this play is in Erie finding a new audience and confidence in his new best friend.
It’s a long night’s gabber into day, as staged by England’s Michael Grandage, a Tony winner for Red and nominee for The Cripple of Inishmaan and Frost/Nixon. This time, Erie’s spiel has been deliberately broken into a series of periodic pauses.
“That’s all me and the design team putting in those in order to just extend the evening through to morning. It’s a directorial liberty that I’ve taken. Normally, the play runs 55 minutes in real time, but I wanted it to go right through to dawn.
“Also,” he added, “I wanted the opportunity to go into people’s heads. Dialogue is, of course, what we live for—we’ve come to hear the O’Neill language—but I think actors like these want to go to the darker moments of the soul and investigate that.”
All roads to this production seem to lead to producer Darren Bagert. “He sent me the play and asked me if I’d be interested,” recalled Whitaker when he met the press after the show in the Booth’s basement lobby. “He thought he’d found something I might like. I’d been looking for a play to do for quite a while, but I was looking for an original to do. I’d never heard of Hughie, and I’d never seen it. What I was interested in was creating a character without preconceived notions around it for me, so I was able to do that—have a completely fresh canvas—to work on it with Michael.”
Hughie was one of the lost O’Neill plays discovered in 1958. Burgess Meredith starred in its world-premiere in London in 1963. There have been three Broadway editions—with Jason Robards in 1964, with Ben Gazzara in 1975 and with Al Pacino in 1996—for a collective run of 138 performances. This limited run ends June 12. It was the first play—and the only one O’Neill got around to finishing (if, indeed, this is finished)—in his proposed eight-play cycle called By Way of Obit.
“The key to my character is how O’Neill describes him,” Whitaker contended. “He says, ‘Erie Smith—a teller of tales.’ There’s something beautiful about that because he’s not only telling us his tales, he’s telling us his dreams and hopes. I tried to put that into the character a lot. Whenever it feels like something’s going to happen or he’s going to fall down, I try to say, ‘No, it can work out. He can keep going.’ Trying to pull something out of this character has been a really exciting challenge for me.”
Grandage remembered reading Hughie eight or nine years ago when he ran the Donmar Warehouse in London. “A young director brought me the play but didn’t have an actor attached. It was a little bit like getting Hamlet without a Hamlet, really, so I passed on it. Then, all these years later, it came back, and I read it again--this time with Forest Whitaker in mind to do it. He is someone I rated hugely for his film work and someone I knew I would really jump at a chance to work with. He’s a method actor, and it’s a beautiful thing to watch somebody like that fully excavate character. He’s incapable of a dishonest beat. He really has to feel each moment.”
Wood’s choice moment as the nebbish night clerk is the opening one when he has the stage all to himself, staring deep and dead-eyed into the abyss (i.e., the audience), a sad sack resigned to a dead-end job and, probably, a dead-end life.
“O’Neill is really specific about where this guy’s attention goes—not throughout but at different places—so my attention goes to those places,” said Wood. “Then I extrapolate from this ride on a firetruck and an ambulance, wishing the police would have a shootout one day, all that. The main thing is to care very much about where it’s going so when I’m brought back to reality there’s something to recover from.
“This was once a good second-rate hotel, according to O’Neill,” he pointed out. “It missed the boom of the ’20s and never recovered, so it just keeps cutting overhead and keeps cutting until it’s now it’s down to the catch-as-catch-can trade.”
There is a desperate, seedy quality about the hotel lobby, but it also possesses a certain regal, almost epic grandeur. That’s because Christopher Oram, coming off his Tony-nominated sets and costumes for Wolf Hall, was still thinking big and majestic.
“I’m a huge fan of American architecture,” he said, “and it’s so great to do one of those big old heavy cast-iron buildings with the heavy stone work onstage—those kinds of fantastic materials that they used: the cast iron and the marble and the tiles. It became a fantastic opportunity to explore all those materials in a space like that.
“There’s an irony to this, too. For all intents and purposes, Hughie is a monologue for two people, and it’s in one of the smaller theatres on Broadway, but it looks gigantic,” he said. “I designed the set in England, but it was all done here. It’s the first time Michael and I did a show from scratch over here. I love working in the city. It’s a fantastic town.”
Peter Bradley, who gladly understudies both roles, makes it simple: “Erie’s one of the great roles.”