Review: ‘Hughie’ at The Booth Theatre in New York City

Jason Robards first played the central  character in this Eugene O’Neill one-act mood piece; that was in 1964. That character isn’t “Hughie” — no, he’s gone to his reward just before first curtain. But he remains a force, a presence, as “Erie Smith” stumbles into the ramshackle hotel where Hughie had long been the night clerk and the nourishment of Erie’s very needy sense of self worth. The new night clerk — a woebegone Irishman named Charlie Hughes — is now the lone soul to occupy the late night lobby of a broken down hotel in New York City, where Erie hangs his hat whenever he’s sober enough to find his way home after a night of gambling, carousing or drinking; sometimes all three in one long night’s journey into day. Erie is a most appealing loser drunk from whose every pore creeps a great sadness. He’s only 45, but he thinks and talks like a septuagenarian as he spends an hour before dawn dreaming, imagining, remembering and commenting in a monologue interrupted only now and then by a compassionate but slightly bored Charlie Hughes.

Frank Wood as A Night Clerk and Forest Whitaker as Erie Smith in 'Hughie.' Photo by Marc Brenner.
Frank Wood as A Night Clerk and Forest Whitaker as Erie Smith in ‘Hughie.’ Photo by Marc Brenner.

O’Neill has gifted Erie with his own night demons and as he shares them with Charlie and with us, we come to know and to empathize with him. He’s a sweet soul who’s made several wrong turns in life, and on this night he particularly misses the third ear of his pal Hughie, who somehow had always been able to restore his self-confidence, to join the sun in bringing shafts of light into the constant darkness of Erie’s days. There is the tiniest glimmer of hope that this poor drifter will at least get through another day as he finally grabs a shaky lifeline from Charlie Hughes.

Erie Smith, created by Jason Robards in 1964, returned to Broadway in 1975 via the work of Ben Gazzara and both actors received Tony nominations for their performances. Later, in 1996, film star Al Pacino tried the role, and now Forest Whitaker is having a go. He’s been given a first rate production, designed and costumed by Christopher Cram and lit by Neil Austin which greatly support the writing and the performance. One can feel the aching loneliness of this unnamed hotel, one can almost smell the damp and fading walls and we recoil at the scariness of the vast and winding staircase that leads to even more despair upstairs in the shadowy floors where people sleep. Adam Cork’s music and sound design enhance the mood and support Mr. Whitaker’s low keyed but intense delivery of Erie Smith.

Some of the columnists, tweeters, facebookers always seem to visit early previews of new works, and thrive on throwing out warnings to potential ticket buyers that they’d better beware. It gets particularly nasty when alarms are sounded about the star not being ready, not know his or her lines. We had rude comments on that score when Al Pacino recently began his run in David Mamet’s China Doll, it plagued Angela Lansbury in both Terence McNally’s Deuce and Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit, and it arrived several times to batter Mr. Whitaker in this play. These non-participants, who thrive on destruction, are unaware or never knew that new works, or works new to the casts of revivals, automatically once spent 2-6 weeks on the road prior to opening in New York. Now they have a few previews, during which much of the repair time is spent on finishing the set, adjusting the lighting, sometimes replacing a miscast actor, often changing pages of script, and if these Cassandras had to learn a speech or two, let alone two or three pages, overnight-perhaps then they would be a little more compassionate about a prompt or two from the stage manager.

I happened to see all of above tryouts, and if its stars were being helped by wires in their heads, or stage managers hiding behind water coolers, I certainly never knew it. Now that Hughie has opened, Forest Whitaker is giving a magnificent performance in a role that requires 60 minutes of Mr. O’Neill’s beautiful words that slowly woo us into caring about Erie Smith.

Frank Wood as A Night Clerk & Forest Whitaker as Erie Smith in 'Hughie.' Photo by Marc Brenner.
Frank Wood as A Night Clerk and Forest Whitaker as Erie Smith in ‘Hughie.’ Photo by Marc Brenner.

Michael Grandage is a gifted director, on loan to us from the Donmar Warehouse in London, which he headed from 2002-2012, He has a basketful of awards for his work, and has been awarded honorary doctorates at two British universities. His work on creating atmosphere, tension, involvement on Hughie gives ample proof of why he’s been so rewarded.

I read today that this play will close in late March, not fulfilling its plan to play until mid-June. Those early arrows  against it hurt the box office too much to give the play room to breathe.

I urge you to  see Hughie before it closes — it’s not major O’Neill, but it is absorbing, filled with atmosphere, and I guarantee you that Erie Smith, as embodied by Forest Whitaker, will be a character you will long remember.

Running Time: 65 minutes, with no intermission.

Hughie plays through March 27, 2016 at The Booth Theatre – 222 West 45th Street, in New York City. For tickets, cal Telecharge at Telecharge
(212) 239-6200, or (800) 447-7400, go to the box office, or purchase them online.

Previous articleBehind the Scenes of Arts Collective @HCC’s Workshop Production of ‘House’: Part 3: Cast Members Brandon Furr, Chaseedaw Giles, Warren Harris, and Wesley LeRoux
Next articleJohn Jiler on 11th Hour Theatre Company’s Next Step Concert Series’ Performance of ‘Big Red Sun’ in Philadelphia
Richard Seff
RICHARD SEFF has been working in theatre since he made his acting debut in support of Claude Rains in the prize winning DARKNESS AT NOON, and he agreed to tour the next season in support of Edward G. Robinson, which took him across the nation and back for nine months. When it was over and he was immediately offered another national tour with THE SHRIKE with Van Heflin, he decided to explore other areas, and he spent the next 22 years representing artists in the theatre as an agent, where he worked at Liebling-Wood, MCA, eventually a partnership of his own called Hesseltine-Bookman and Seff, where he discovered and developed young talents like Chita Rivera, John Kander, Fred Ebb, Ron Field, Linda Lavin, Nancy Dussault and many others. He ultimately sold his interest to ICM. When he completed his contractual obligation to that international agency, he returned to his first love, acting and writing for the theatre. In that phase of his long and varied life, he wrote a comedy (PARIS IS OUT!) which brightened the 1970 season on Broadway for 107 performances. He became a successful supporting player in film, tv and onstage, and ultimately wrote a book about his journey, SUPPORTING PLAYER: MY LIFE UPON THE WICKED STAGE, still popular with older theatre lovers and youngsters who may not yet know exactly where they will most sensibly and profitably fit into the world of show business. The book chronicles a life of joyous work working in a favored profession in many areas, including leading roles in the regional theatres in his work in Lanford Wilson's ANGELS FALL. His last stage role was in THE COUNTESS in which he played Mr. Ruskin for 9 months off Broadway. Five seasons ago Joel Markowitz suggested he join him at DCTheatreScene. His accurate and readable reviews of the New York Scene led, when the time was right, for his joining DCMetroTheaterArts to continue bringing news of the Big Apple's productions just to keep you posted. He is delighted to be able to join DCMTA and work with Joel and hopes that you like what he has to say.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here