As the play begins, we hear the strains of composer and sound designer, Adam Kork’s lonesome underscoring. The house lights dim ever so slowly as the stage lights come up to reveal the lobby’s grime-covered and worn-down regal splendor.
Erie Smith (Forest Whitaker) enters through the revolving door. He’s a long-time denizen of the hotel, which he refers to as “a crummy dump.” Erie is a flim-flam man who seems to embodies a Runyonesque world of bangtails, craps and smooth operators. To him, everyone is a sucker waiting to be had. That includes the hotel’s former night clerk, the title character you never see, Hughie. Erie had grown fond of Hughie over the years. His death has hit him hard. He enters the lobby fresh off a bender.
The play is nearly a monologue for Whitaker with the new night clerk, Charlie Hughes (Frank Wood) barely speaking. In this, his Broadway debut, Whitaker takes on a more modest character than one might expect from a Broadway debut. He gives an impressive performance as the sketchy Erie. Through him we experience the dames, the horses, and the ups and downs of the life of a gambling con man.
Wood, a Tony Award winner for 1998’s Side Man, perfectly captures the desk clerk for whom Erie’s spun yarns barely register. His performance strikes the perfect note of feigned interest and disinterest.
The production is directed by Michael Grandage with a dream-like quality. The slowness with which the houselights dim and the stage lights come up, lulls you into this dream world. For all we know, this building and these men no longer even exist. We are watching a play inhabited by the souls of the departed. There is no one in the place except the two men. It has the feel of one of those photographs you see of long-ago abandoned hospitals, malls or theme parks where the world has been overtaken by ivy, and sunlight flows in through broken windows and holes in roofs.
The design team, Christopher Oram on scenic and costume design, the aforementioned Austin on lighting design and Kork’s scoring and sound design, help create an ethereal environment that beautifully compliments the play and gives it that otherworldly feel.
The play is drawn out and repetitive leaving you wondering whether you have fallen asleep and are in a dream. Dare I question one of the great contributors of the American theatrical canon? What would have happened had we been allowed to see more of who Erie really is and what’s below the surface. Then again, if that happened, we wouldn’t have our dream.
Written in 1942, Hughie was not produced until after O’Neill’s death in 1953. In 1958 it received its first production in Sweden at the Royal Dramatic Theatre and eventually arrived on Broadway in 1964 starring Jason Robards and earning him a Tony Award nomination.