Susan Granger’s review of “Hughie” (Booth Theatre: 2016 season)
Academy Award winner Forest Whitaker, who embodied Dictator Idi Amin in “The Last King of Scotland,” makes his Broadway debut in this revival of Eugene O’Neill’s short, one-act play about a down-on-his-luck gambler. Written in 1942, it’s a character study about self-deception.
Set in a spacious, yet shabby hotel lobby in Times Square in a summer’s night in 1928, it revolves around Broadway barfly/gambler Erie Smith (Whitaker) telling the laconic new night clerk, Charlie Hughes (Frank Wood) all about the relationship he shared with the night clerk’s predecessor, Hughie.
Smith has been on a five-day bender since Hughie’s funeral and claims his luck has been jinxed ever since Hughie was hospitalized. Charlie’s obvious disinterest never fazes him, as Hughie drones on, insisting, “Something always turns up for me. I was born lucky. I ain’t worried.”
Former artistic leader of London’s Donmar Warehouse, Michael Grandage, who has been honored for directing “Frost/Nixon” and “Red,” helms the impressive production, working seamlessly with set/costume designer Christopher Oram, lighting designer Neil Austin and composer/sound designer Adam Cork. But Whitaker’s restrained, somewhat disconnected performance lacks the depth necessary to maintain interest in what amounts to a monologue.
Since playwright Eugene O’Neill had already explored the same concept in “The Iceman Cometh,” this plotless, 55-minute drama has always been considered one of his minor works. First produced in Sweden in 1958, it was staged in English in 1963, when Burgess Meredith played the lead in London. Later moving to Broadway, Jason Robards assumed the role, followed by over the years by Ben Gazzara, Al Pacino and Brian Dennehy.
While serious actors, like Whitaker, are understandably attracted to the meaty role of Eric Smith, audiences may feel they don’t get their money’s worth, particularly when a single Broadway ticket can cost about $150. So it’s not surprising that “Hughie,” originally scheduled to run through mid-June, will close on March 27.