By Geary Danihy
Sometimes a role is just too big for an actor to handle. Then, there are times, as in Hughie, when the actor is too big for the role.
This one-act, two-character play by Eugene O’Neill that recently opened at Long Wharf Theatre, stars Brian Dennehy as Erie Smith, a down on his luck gambler just coming off a bender. He returns to his seedy hotel, where a new Night Clerk (Joe Grifasi), has replaced Hughie, whose recent death was the impetus for Erie’s monumental drunk.
What we have here is a character study, and Dennehy does a fine job at slowly revealing this flawed and bedeviled human being, a man who embraces illusions yet needs an enabler (i.e., a Hughie) to make it all work. With Hughie’s demise the shallowness of Erie’s life becomes manifest to himself. To escape the whispers of his conscience and the hollowness of his life, he gets drunk. Upon his return to the hotel, captured in a period-perfect set by designer Eugene Lee, he slowly reveals the nature of his relationship with Hughie to the new night clerk, a man who, as played by Grifasi, is a living, breathing definition of “lugubrious.”
Hughie has the feel of a short story rather than that of a play, for there are few of the dramatic elements – rising action, conflict, climax – that are, some would argue, so necessary to the success of a drama. Dennehy skillfully works with what he has been given, allowing his character to shift easily from bravado to self-serving pathos as the actor limns Ernie’s soul.
It eventually dawns on Erie that perhaps, just perhaps, he has in this new night clerk a fit replacement for Hughie, and in the play’s final scene Dennehy’s eyes light up for the first time and his grin becomes infectious as he weighs the possibility that he might be able to maintain the fantasy that is his life for just a bit longer.
The closing scene aches for a second act, an act in which Erie’s delusions and illusions come crashing down upon him, and perhaps down on the night clerk as well. This second act was never written by O’Neill, so what we have is tragedy interruptus, a less than satisfying situation for theatergoers.
It may just be wishful thinking, but in watching Dennehy in the play’s final moments I had the feeling that the actor was aching to do something more with this character, to bring him to an apt and tragic denouement. Alas, there is no catharsis in Hughie either for the audience or the main actor. That Dennehy is capable of creating such a catharsis was made apparent is his work as James Tyrone in O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night (2003), and as Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (1999), winning Tony Awards for both performances. In Hughie, he gets to conjure a character that just might have been as riveting as Tyrone or Loman, and as tragic. Unfortunately, we get to see Erie rise from his own ashes, but we never see him fall, as he inevitably must.
Hughie runs through Sunday, Nov. 16. For tickets or more information call 787-4282 or go to www.longwharf.org.