Hughie is not one of Eugene O’Neill’s epic works. It runs about an hour. Nor is it one of the playwright’s signature achievements. The Iceman Cometh, Anna Christie and Long Day’s Journey Into Night (also being revived this season) have far more name recognition. But Hughie has become a player in the O’Neill canon, simply because heavyweight actors have chosen to make it so.
The 1942 one-act was first staged on Broadway in 1964 with O’Neill interpreter nonpareil Jason Robards, Jr., in the central role of small time hustler Erie Smith. It returned to Broadway in 1975, when Ben Gazzara took a whack at the garrulous gambler. Both actors received Tony nominations for their performances. In 1996, Erie received his most famous affiliation yet, as Al Pacino stepped into the part.
Now, this year, Broadway gets the Hughie of Oscar-winning film actor Forest Whitaker, who is making his Main Stem debut in the play. The gig is an unexpected turn of events for the busy performer, but not an unwelcome one.
“When I first started acting, my goal was to do theatre in New York,” says Whitaker. “I didn’t really have a goal to do film. But I started to work in film pretty much immediately while I was in school, so my career took a different path.”
Everything about this production—not just the Times Square environs—is new to Whitaker: the play itself, which he had never heard of prior to being approached for the role; its British director, Michael Grandage; and its producer Darren Bagert, who first approached him about the venture. Whitaker imagined his first Broadway credit would be in an original work, but after reading Hughie and liking it, he decided, “Let’s take a walk with this.”
It’s tempting to think of the drama as a solo turn, given that Erie’s not the kind of guy to let anyone else get a word in edgewise. No doubt this is part of the reason actors gravitate to the role. There is a second character, however, in Hughie, which takes place entirely in the lobby of a run-down Manhattan hotel in 1928. That’s the laconic new night clerk, whose ear Erie chews off while the minute hand takes a full sweep across the lobby clock. In this new production stage veteran Frank Wood, a Tony winner for Side Man back in 1999, fills those shoes.
“Michael described [Erie] as a teller of tales,” says Whitaker, referring to director Grandage. “And I think of him as a guy that’s continually telling stories.” Erie reminds Whitaker of a guy he knows in Boston. “Whenever I see him, I know I’m going to be listening to stories for an hour or two.”
Whitaker probably has his share of tales to tell himself. The Texas native found success early, before he even graduated from USC. He took on a small but memorable part as a high school football player in the 1982 comedy Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Whitaker, it turns out, first attended college on a football scholarship, lending the role a sense of authenticity. He became a familiar face through supporting roles in ’80s films like The Color of Money, Platoon, and Good Morning, Vietnam. Clint Eastwood’s 1988 film Bird gave him his first starring role, as jazz icon Charlie Parker.
Thereafter he shaped an unorthodox, highly individual career on both film and television, usually acting (notably in The Crying Game), but also directing (Waiting to Exhale) and producing. He’s also a good singer, for what it’s worth. His mounting resume culminated in an acclaimed performance as Ugandan strongman Idi Amin in 2006’s The Last King of Scotland, for which he won a trophy-case full of statuettes, including an Academy Award.
Over his 30-plus-year career, however, he’s never played a part like Erie, he says. “I’m still figuring him out.… All his life is gambling pretty much. He’s trying to make himself feel bigger than life, that he’s a real roller. I think he blurs the line between his dreams and reality.”
In another way Erie Smith is just another Whitaker role—at least in the manner the actor approaches the assignment.
“Whatever I’m doing artistically, the goal is always to unveil humanity and understand people. I continue to pull back these layers to see how I’m connected to a person, a being, a space or whatever. As a result, I’m trying to explore the depth of humanity. Sometimes, in the past, I would repeat something because I didn’t understand it the first time. Maybe I would do three movies about Vietnam, or something. I’m trying to learn and grow. I don’t see career markers and goals in the same way others do.”
As for hitting the stage for the first time, Whitaker isn’t nervous. Such challenges are what he feeds on.
“I’m walking into territory I don’t know—it’s an unknown room and I have to trust it. I know I’m not going to sink through the floor or fall off a cliff.” He pauses, and smiles, as another possibility occurs to him. “Or I’ll fly. Maybe I have wings. It depends.”