Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - February 25, 2016
Hughie by Eugene O'Neill. Directed by Michael Grandage. Set & costume design by Christopher Oram. Lighting design by Neil Austin. Composer & sound design by Adam Cork. Cast: Forest Whitaker with Frank Wood.
That would be Forest Whitaker, an excellent film and television actor who's perhaps best known for his Academy Award-winning turn as Idi Amin in the 2006 film, The Last King of Scotland. And, judging by much of what he's doing at present, his stage chops are of a high level, too. Despite persistent reports of difficulties (particularly with his lines) during previews, Whitaker delivers a thoroughly amiable and thoughtful performance that instantly puts you on the side of his character, Erie Smith.
Whitaker lets you see how Erie made his reputation and what little success he's had as a gambler and playboy: through his charm. His megawatt smile and bear hug of a voice identify this Erie someone who, under slightly different circumstances, could have been a major society mover-and-shaker. When he forms an instantaneous (albeit, at least at the outset, a one-way) relationship with the night clerk (Frank Wood) at the hotel where he makes his home, it's not that much of a stretch. You want to be his friendwhy wouldn't everyone else?
The problem with Whitaker's approach, however, is that it's a shallow one. The key component of Erie's personality is that we don't get to know him that well through what he does (he doesn't do much) or says (you're never sure how much of it is trustworthy), but through his relationship with the title character we never meet. (The play was the only completed installment of an intended collection from O'Neill called By Way of Obit, which would have extended this idea.) Hughie was the previous night clerk at the hotel, a man who was regularly left in worshipful awe of Erie's claimed exploits. But he died last week, and without him as a friend, sounding board, or ego inflater, what's left of Erie?
On the occasions that cracks do appear in Erie's psychological armor, they fade in and out by way of vaguely despondent glances and barely detectable modulations of voice. And when Erie sits, defeated and despondent, rather than going up to his room to fester (and probably die) in silence, the moments are angled so wide that they become arid, not rich, and feel more like filler from director Michael Grandage than key demonstrations of Erie's personality at that point.
As a result, we come to know very little about Erie and why he matters, and that makes Hughie feel a fair amount longer than its ultra-lean running time of 53 minutes; Grandage has not turned out a taut, tight piece here. And despite how good it looks and how well it extends the play's underlying metaphor, Christopher Oram's sprawling set doesn't scream O'Neill's "flea-bag hotel." (It is, however, lighted with an eye toward emotional illumination by Neil Austin.)
This is not to say the evening is not enjoyable; it is, in its way, because of Whitaker's natural gifts and the fine rapport he's established with the always interesting and unpredictable Wood, whose clerk displays in his indifferent blankness the multiple layers we need from Erie. The clerk's eventual turnaround to life is not a surprise; Wood makes it clear he's always waiting to be ignited. The same cannot be said of Hughie's behavior.
O'Neill was a true theatre writer, so his plays demand a certain size and presence that have attracted, and by many reports, elicited excellent work from the likes of Jason Robards in the original 1964 production, Al Pacino in the 1996 Broadway revival, and Brian Dennehy at the Long Wharf Theatre in 2008. Perhaps a smaller, meeker Erie could still work, provided he's justified with the bigger soul and grander dreams that, like those illusions, O'Neill frequently used to identify his heroes.
Although Whitaker is not there yet, he may still make it. The energy, resourcefulness, and raw ability he shows here suggest it's a distinct possibility, and result in a Hughie that manages to enjoy even as it fails to invigorate. But right now, like Erie, Whitaker is potential and fantasies unrealized, underutilized, and underwhelming.