Long Wharf Theatre II

There are just a few actors who can hold a stage all by themselves. Brian Dennehy is one of those master thespians, who, with a curl of the lip, a laugh, and a twist of the hand, makes a character come alive. Such is the case with the role of Erie Smith in the play HUGHIE by Eugene O’Neill.

Written in 1942, HUGHIE was not performed until 5 years after O’Neill died; it was supposed to be part if an eight-part cycle of monologues called, “By Way of Obit,” but the others were never written. In them, the speaking character would share with a mostly silent listener the memory of someone who had died.

Here, a down-and-out gambler, Erie, who has spent his life betting on the horses---He calls them “bangtails”--- enters the lobby of a small down-and-out hotel on a West Side street in NY. He is getting over a bender, mourning the death of the former desk clerk, Hughie, who in a peculiar way over many years had become his friend. In his place at the shabby desk is a new clerk, the saddest-faced Charles Hughes played so well by Joe Grifasi. He listens for close to an hour, while Erie, pacing the lobby like a tired Tiger, reminisces about his experiences with Hughie. A picture is painted piece by piece of Hughie, who lived close to the vest, of Hughie’s wife, who certainly didn’t approve of Erie and his life style, and of Erie’s various escapades with wine and women.

Erie’s main problem is that he has lost his luck since Hughie died. He admits to living the hard scrabble life of ups and downs; however he is really down, and owes many people money which he borrowed from them to get a large $100 flower arrangement for Hughie’s funeral. There was no one there, he says, and the children were crying.

Charles Hughes, the desk clerk seems unaffected by Erie’s complaints, until he asks the magic question: Did you know Arnold Rothstein? Then, suddenly the tenor of the place changes. Erie knows he’s got another sucker, and maybe a new friend, who is willing to gamble with him as Hughie did.

Brian Dennehy is a large man; he’s trimmed down, considerably, but he is still an imposing figure, who moves like a cat. Directed by Robert Falls of the Goodman Theatre on Eugene Lee’s detailed set, Lit by John Culbert, with sound by Richard Woodbury, he presents a perfect performance.

This review originally aired on WMNR 88.1FM FINE ARTS PUBLIC RADIO

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