"I think that my being Irish-American, the grandson of a factory worker in Bridgeport, CT, and my having been raised in a real Irish-American climate in Brooklyn and Long Island and New York in the 1940s and '50s goes a long way toward explaining it," Dennehy says. "There's definitely some understanding of the attitude that O'Neill had, an attitude that is very close to my own experience — his being bitter and cynical and trying to explain what he sees as life, but also with a pretty good sense of humor."
And so the 70-year-old Dennehy, who won the 2003 Tony Award for Best Actor in a Play for O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night, is taking on the great American playwright once again, this time in the short play Hughie at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, CT (to Nov. 16).
When Hughie was presented earlier this year at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Ontario, Canada, The Toronto Star described Dennehy's performance as "true greatness." [For the record, the Long Wharf run is billed as the Goodman Theatre production of the play, elements of which were also seen at Stratford this past summer.]
In Hughie, Dennehy plays a small-time gambler named Erie Smith who returns to his seedy New York hotel to find that the night clerk, Hughie, who loved to hear Smith's tall tales, has died. Will the replacement clerk be as receptive?
Dennehy, who also won a best-actor Tony in 1999 for Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, notes that "Hughie, which is 45 or 50 minutes long, was probably written sometime between 1939 and 1945, that five- or six-year period when O'Neill was furiously writing most of the great plays he will be remembered for, like Long Day's Journey and Iceman Cometh. "O'Neill also wrote short 'character' plays, eight or nine of them," Dennehy says. "And he destroyed all of them except Hughie. He thought he had destroyed Hughie too. And in a way, everything O'Neill said in all of his plays is delivered in Hughie in capsule form — the necessity for every human being to create an illusion about him or herself and his or her life. And to find a way to sustain that illusion that allows you to get up in the morning and get through the day and live your life — Hickey in Iceman, for example, or Mary Tyrone and her morphine in Long Day's Journey. It's the only way you can survive. It's how O'Neill felt about everybody."
At the end of Hughie, Dennehy adds, "Smith is fortunate enough to find somebody else who is not only prepared to accept his delusions but to reinforce them, and is looking for his own delusions. It's an upbeat finish to a bitter and cynical play that is a perfect example of O'Neill's philosophical thinking."
The director of the play is Robert Falls, the artistic director of the Goodman Theatre in Chicago and Dennehy's longtime collaborator, who also directed him in Death of a Salesman and Long Day's Journey Into Night. "Bob is from an Irish-American background in Illinois, and we have done an enormous amount of O'Neill over more than 25 years," Dennehy says.
Their partnership, of course, has included much more than O'Neill. "Our first play together," Dennehy says, "was Galileo by Brecht. And from the beginning, our philosophy, our attitude, has always been the same — to try to do things we weren't sure we could do."
Given their history, it has long been clear that whether or not Dennehy and Falls were sure, audiences have been grateful for their collaboration.