Long Wharf Stage II, New Haven
“Hughie,” now on Long Wharf’s Stage II, could be seen as a summary of Eugene O’Neill’s long, productive output as a playwright. The shattered pipe dreams, the pretense, the bluster, the agonies are all there is this hour-long, one-act, two-character piece.
“Hughie” is the tale of Erie Smith, a small-time hustler/gambler who has fallen on hard times. Yet he keeps up the fast-talking braggadocio style, as he checks into a small, flea-bitten hotel on New York’s west side. With the desk clerk as his foil, he introduces himself and talks of the good old days when the former desk clerk Hughie served as his good-luck charm. He has fallen on hard times, he tells the disinterested clerk, but will surely rise again. He boasts, lies, invents, gradually drawing the clerk into his circle—thus replacing the irreplaceable Hughie. The new clerk, by coincidence, is named Charles Hughes.
“Hughie” could be a devastating experience—featuring, as it does, the respected Brian Dennehy in the lead, and with the competent actor Joe Grifasi as his target. Essentially one long monologue, with the clerk serving as a tabula rasa, its success depends on the lead actor.
But this “Hughie” falls short of expectations. Perhaps it is the eminent antecedents which overshadow the current production. “Hughie,” written by O’Neill in 1941, had its U.S. 1964 premiere with Jason Robards in the lead, followed by an Al Pacino revival in 1996. Both productions turned a minor O’Neill effort into a major event.
Dennehy has the swagger, but never seems to get below the surface, mining the character’s vulnerability. It is thus difficult to be involved with the fate of Erie Smith. One remains as detached and bored as the desk clerk himself. (Under Robert Falls’ direction, incidentally, Grifasi is far too much of a stick figure, his blank stare turning the character into a caricature. Grifasi all but disappears from the stage in this interpretation of the desk clerk.)
At the end, Hughes is drawn to hustler Erie Smith, as the two share a game of chance. It is a development, unfortunately, not shared by this member of the audience. “Hughie,” it turns out, remains a minor O’Neill piece—once more awaiting rescue by the right performers.
There are no messages, no deep philosophies, to be mined here. But “Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh!” is sheer happy, mindless entertainment.
-- -Irene Backalenick
Oct. 16, 2008