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Regional Reviews by Fred Sokol

Hughie
Long Wharf Theatre

Also see Fred's review of Of Mice and Men

Hughie
Brian Dennehy and Joe Grifasi
Long Wharf Theatre wisely begins its season by bringing to Stage II a small gem, Eugene O'Neill's Hughie, featuring acute and sustaining stage actors Brian Dennehy and Joe Grifasi. This is a production developed at Chicago's Goodman Theatre, and both men appeared as the Stratford Shakespeare Festival's Studio Theatre presented it this past summer. All of forty-five or fifty minutes, this play, as opposed to O'Neill's expansive works, benefits from Robert Falls' fine direction and Eugene Lee's picture-perfect set.

Dennehy, whose stage presence and skill levels are striking, plays Erie Smith, a small-time gambler who has just lost his a great friend, Hughie, a midtown Manhattan hotel clerk. It is a bit after 3:00 a.m. during summer of 1928 and Erie finds the new night clerk (Grifasi) wiling away the hours. Smith boasts of conquests with women, and references Hughie's relationship with his (Hughie's) wife. Erie is: desolate, somewhat drunk, full of himself—and lonely. Grifasi's clerk doesn't have a whole lot of lines but this actor speaks volumes through facial expression. Both men are tired but the man at the desk delivers his dialogue right on cue, providing some counterpoint to Erie's rant. Dennehy cannot be denied while Grifasi plays the straight man. All of it has to be exquisitely timed. Dennehy has to know exactly which way his character must turn—when to smile and to release that moment ... he is cast a storyteller, one who twists the realities of the past so that they never lag. Grifasi, though, stands behind the desk. Although he, quite literally, does almost nothing, the actor must be on his mark so that this play remains a vital two-hander, rather than a one-man show.

The night clerk is always listening, and as Smith brags (we know better) about his successes at the race track, for example, the smaller man takes it all in. Dennehy often beams as he thinks backward of Hughie and what might have been the good times. Grifasi is, on the other hand, impassive and even expressionless. Late in the play, however, when he has an opening, the clerk is verbally responsive. And he isn't opposed to the idea of a small-time gamble with Eric Smith just as the show goes dark.

Dennehy is a most convincing performer who demonstrates a wonderful and thorough understanding of Erie Smith as he fully inhabits the guy. The depth of his skill entices a theatergoer to catch him again soon when the performer appears in a longer-length play. He fully masters his monologues and has complete command of the surroundings.

Lee's set is most evocative as it includes wooden reception desk, panels and flooring, and period light fixtures and wall hangings. A background exit leads to a stairway and upper floor rooms. Rachel Anne Healy, costumer, has Dennehy decked out in an off-white three-piece suit and hat to match while Grifasi wears a red uniform jacket.  Sound designer Richard Woodbury provides city noises, including those of a nearby subway train as it stops.

There's a fatalistic tone to Hughie. Erie Smith, living in the past but open to pipe dreaming and locating a bit of hope for present and future, admits, "We all gotta go." This short play immediately catches the reader, and its characterizations last beyond the final curtain. The production serves as a showcase for excellent acting. The actual Brian Dennehy does not emerge until he takes his final bow. This is the first moment that this absorbing actor stands tight-lipped and without feeling. He has relinquished the character—but only until the next performance.

Hughie continues at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven through November 9th. For ticket and schedule information, visit www.longwharf.org or call (203) 787-4282.


Photo: T. Charles Erickson


Also see the current theatre schedule for Connecticut & Beyond

- Fred Sokol



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