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Forest Whitaker Stars in Eugene OíNeillís "Hughie" at the Booth Theatre

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Darren Bagert, Michael Grandage Company
et al.

Forest Whitaker

Eugene OíNeillís

Frank Wood

At the
Booth Theatre
222 West 45th Street

Directed by Michael Grandage

Set & Costume Design: Christopher Oram
Lighting Design: Neil Austin
Composer & Sound Design: Adam Cork
Casting: Calleri Casting
Press Representative: Polk & Co.
Advertising: AKA
Production Management: Aurora Productions
Company Manager: Lizbeth Cohn
Production Stage Manager: Peter Wolf
Executive Producer: 101 Productions, Ltd.

Dr. Roberta E. Zlokower
March 2, 2016

OíNeillís brief, one-act play, written in the 1940ís, was first seen in New York in 1964, with Jason Robards as Erie Smith and Jack Dodson as the Night Clerk. A less than flattering review of that original Broadway show, at the Royale Theater, referred to the production as repetitious and modest. Tonightís new production, almost 52 years later in a theater on the same West 45th Street block as the original, was, yes, repetitious and modest, but also spellbinding and master craftsmanship, a study in fine acting. Forest Whitaker was Erie, and Frank Wood was the Night Clerk. And, the dark, dingy, hotel lobby setting could have been also on this block, one middle of the night in 1928.

The entire play is a little over one hour, but time travels quickly, as the audience is riveted to Mr. Whitakerís lonely, twitchy, hands-in-and-out-of-pocket banter, trying to endear himself to this new night clerk, who replaces Hughie, whose funeral Erie recently attended. Or, so he says he did. Erie tells the clerk, and us, that he bought Hughie a horseshoe shaped wreath of flowers for his burial, as Hughie was his human telephone, always at the desk to absorb Erieís endless repartee. That chatter, now forlorn, had then consisted of Erieís adventures with sexy, shady women, barroom brawls, longshot horse racing wins, street gambling muscle, mob connections, and so on. Hughie had never demanded much, and the two often ended the twilight hours in a game of cards.

The new night clerk, precisely performed by Mr. Wood, appears passive, detached, bored, even annoyed, for most of the performance. His silent posture is one that must be ever so difficult to maintain. Mr. Whitakerís Erie, in contrast, paces in circles about the wide, empty floor, sits on the lobby steps, shuffles pocket paraphernalia, stretches back on his feet, and glances at a worn-out elevator, that remains in place, waiting to take him to his bleak residential room. Erie has been drinking for several days, grieving his loss of his only friend, Hughie, and that solitary room upstairs will close in on him like a cell. He craves companionship, and there the night clerk sits. Eventually, the night clerkís faÁade cracks, and their mutual, circular sentences take the place of Erieís solo, circular swagger. A game of cards ensues.

Outside their empty, stage-sized hotel lobby, an occasional urban sound can be detected. A major fault of this production, directed by Michael Grandage, is that louder midtown noise, sirens, buggies (1928 sounds), milk carts, paperboys, occasional fights and shouts, would lend company to these two isolated souls, and to the audience. It would not diminish the personification of Erie, whoís removed himself from whatever his prior world contained, to enhance the staging with increased sounds from outside those greasy windows. Alternately, this play would provide more immediacy on the small stage, even one partially open, such as in the park. OíNeillís concept play of the human condition should be staged more often, not less. If it does not make it on this Broadway stage, it deserves a run in a more modest, urban space. After all, Erie and the Night Clerk wonít mind. Christopher Oramís set is true to OíNeillís oeuvre, and his costume for Erie is retro, rumpled wannabe. Neil Austinís lighting is appropriately stark and dim, while Adam Corkís composition and sound design, as noted above, are minimal and often surreal. Kudos to Forest Whitaker, and kudos to Eugene OíNeill.

Forest Whitaker and Frank Wood
in Eugene O'Neill's "Hughie"
Courtesy of Roberta Zlokower

For more information, contact Dr. Roberta E. Zlokower at