Eugene O’Neill’s Hughie at Long Wharf Theatre

David Begelman

Hughie, first staged in Swedish in the early forties, is the lone survivor of a cycle of nine short plays of Eugene O’Neill’s he dubbed “By Way of Obit.” Other dramas in the group were destroyed by the playwright to prevent their publication—for unknown reasons. All were fashioned as monologues in which a chief character would share his feelings about an unseen person with another on stage character who has few lines to speak.

One expects any O’Neill drama, especially those authored during the later phase of his career, to revolve around issues of personal torment hidden under a veil of self-deception and illusion. Hughie does not disappoint in this regard. In fact, the play condenses familiar themes that also rumble in longer masterpieces like Long Day’s Journey Into Night and The Iceman Cometh. It was written around 1941, ten years before the playwright’s death from a neurodegenerative disease.

Long Wharf Theatre’s production of Hughie is doubly satisfying for theatergoers. Fifty-five minutes long without intermission, it includes performances by two seasoned troupers, Brian Dennehy and Joe Grifasi, both of whom have generously consented to discuss the play and their approach to it in “Talk Back” sessions with the audience after each performance. The two are old hands at tackling Hughie, having performed it in four separate theaters.

Mr. Dennehy, a well known movie star, has admirably opted in recent years to return to the venue in which his considerable talent can be manifested to greater advantage: the stage. He has explored the O’Neill oeuvre in ways that distinguish him as one of the theater’s outstanding interpreters of the canon. He is probably a perfect choice for the role of Erie Smith, a character he wears like a glove: a boisterous, tottering, bragging, misogynistic, inebriated wreck of a person without his departed pal. The latter is the eponymous “Hughie,” the chum who in the past anchored Erie’s identity, and whose invisible presence even when deceased continues to do the same thing.

Ironically, the night clerk in the west side hotel in which Erie is staying replaces Hughie’s role in Erie’s life, providing the loquacious boozer and gambler with an audience for his self-promotional oratory. Except the clerk is a cipher, a fellow of few words who gets lost in the privacy of his own thoughts when not responding blankly to Erie.

Mr. Grifasi’s night clerk is likewise a performance of distinction, albeit on another plane. In the Talk Back session about his role, this actor remarked that his challenge was to convey a focus on shifting private thoughts without artificially indicating it. Mr. Grifasi accomplished this impressively.

Hughie is a well crafted, tightly constructed drama about a character who advertises his abilities as a drinker, gambler, ladies man, and all around know-it-all. But the darker side of his fortunes is clear from the outset. He has lost the edge on success at the racetrack, at dice, with women, and life in general, all of which coincided with the death of his buddy, Hughie. His refuge is a flea-bitten hotel; his solace, a night clerk who is, alas, impenetrable.

O’Neill’s play thus introduces its principal character as a broken man whose effort to magnify his importance to a desk clerk winds down like a diminishing musical chord. It is also a play about the life of an individual who cannot define himself except in relation to others who are either dead or absorbed in their own private world.

Hughie was directed skillfully by Robert Falls, and Eugene Lee’s set, with its battered appointments and seedy ambience was a thing of realistic beauty. Richard Woodbury’s sound, especially the occasional ragtime music and the droning of an overhead el train marking the fateful passage of time, suitably enhanced a grim atmosphere.

In the Talk Back session of the performance this reviewer attended, an audience member asked whether Eugene O’Neill’s talent as a playwright was created by his alcoholism. Mr. Dennehy (a genuine wit in his own right offstage) deflected the crass question with a riposte of his own about his lineage: “There are two kinds of Irishmen. The ones that drink, and the ones that don’t. And they’re both alcoholic!”

Never you mind. If this reviewer could write plays like Eugene O’Neill and there was a smidgeon of truth to the surmise about alcoholism and creativity—which, by the way, there isn’t—he’d demand all available bartenders start pouring the hooch, A.S.A.P.

Hughie opened on October 8 and has an extended run until November 16, 2008 at Long Wharf Theatre’s Stage II at 222 Sargent Drive, New Haven. Tickets may be purchased by calling (203)-787-4282 or through website: www.longwharf.org


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