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Friday, February 26, 2016

Hughie (Booth Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

When film star Forest Whitaker was first announced to star in a Broadway revival of Eugene O’Neill’s very brief one-act play first written in 1942 (but not produced in America until 1964 with Jason Robards, Jr.), one had every reason to imagine the play, which runs only a bit shy of 60 minutes, was perhaps one of the actor’s personal favorites or at least one with which he felt a particular affinity.

But after watching the amiable but uncertain performance on view at the Booth, one is simply left with a major “why?”

One need only listen to a few minutes of Robards’ 1964 premiere performance, or a later audio version from the 1990s with his voice considerably older to hear all the character authenticity and innate sense of O’Neill’s rhythms missing in Whitaker’s assumption of the role.

The setting is a gloomy hotel lobby – beautifully realized by designed Christopher Oram (who also crafted the period costumes) – and the time is 1928. Erie Smith (Whitaker), a small time gambler ambles into the lobby after his latest drunken binge, and proceeds to bend the ear of the mild-mannered night clerk (Frank Wood) whose surname Hughes resembles that of the titular Hughie, the late former clerk on whom Erie pins the success of his early days, and sets him bemoaning the turn in his fortune’s since Hughie’s demise.

The play is basically a monologue, interspersed with characterful responses from the clerk. There have been uncharitable reports of Whitaker’s difficulty memorizing his lines and the presence of an off-stage prompter, and indeed I detected spurts of hesitancy in his delivery, but mainly it’s his failure to create a plausible character that’s the major flaw. The failure is all the more puzzling since he’s very much at the top of his game on the screen. He was superb in last year’s “Southpaw” with Jake Gyllanhall, for instance.

Brian Dennehy, another O’Neill veteran, was said to have been wonderful as Erie. And one can imagine other “Iceman Cometh” alum such as Nathan Lane and Kevin Spacey would do well.

Director Michael Grandage paces the limited action with intelligence, but the central failure can’t help but generate a certain monotony. Oram’s 1920s costumes, Neil Austin’s moody lighting, and Adam Cork’s highly effective sound design, and incidental music are all tops.

(Booth Theatre, 222 West 45 Street; 212-239-6200 or Telecharge.com)

Photo by Marc Brenner.
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