By Marlene S. Gaylinn

Anyone who has lived in a big city like New York can sympathize with feelings of loneliness despite daily contact with noisy crowds of people. Against this unnatural background -- which can sometimes drive normal people nuts -- loneliness is the plight of Brian Dennehy and Joe Grifasi who star in Eugene O’Neill’s semi-autobiographical “Hughie,” which is playing at New Haven’s Long Wharf Theatre until November 16.

The plot, if one can call it that, is very simple. The focus of attention is mainly on dialogue between two, typical, New York City characters. And, unlike O’Neill’s other long journeys into the souls of the sorrowful, one does not have to delve too far to get the point.

During the early morning hours, while it is still dark outside, Erie Smith (Dennehy) returns to his dilapidated, New York City hotel after a prolonged drunken spree. The man is still mourning the recent loss of his friend and confidant, Hughie, the former hotel night clerk. Stumbling around in a semi-stupor, the hotel resident finds that a new, night clerk (Grifasi) is taking his friend’s place. Loud and blustering, Erie begins to regale the reticent night clerk with the same tales of gambling, conquering beautiful women etc. that once held Hughie’s ear. It takes considerable time (the play lasts fifty minutes) until the curiosity of the less-experienced, family man is engaged and both men begin to fill their time and emptiness with pipe dreams.

Having played a wide variety of strong characters during his long career (Willy Loman in “Death of a Salesman” in 1999, for example) the award-winning Brian Dennehy is a natural for the boastful, New York City character role of Erie. Yet, while he and Grifasi play their parts quite well, something is missing – human sympathy for the characters.

The focus on the main characters’ facial expressions and body language is undermined by the grand façade of a set so realistic, that the dilapidated lobby with its tin-trimmed ceiling, worn carpeting, broken lights and shoe-polishing stand could have been moved directly out of a Midtown hotel. Which may point to the importance of Director, Robert Falls, Set Designer, Eugene Lee and the logistics of mounting this particular play on Long Wharf’s long but shallow Stage II stage.

Instead of a more intimate setting and the usual, side placement of the reception desk, this overlong feature takes center stage – looking more like a saloon bar. The reference may be intentional but it forces the audience’s attention on the facing, although passive, night clerk while Dennehy is reciting his smart-alecky lines moving side to side. It’s like watching a tennis match. The actor moves from the shoe stand on one end to the lounging chairs on the other – practically ballet dancing among the hotel furnishings.

At one point, the realistic sound of a nearby, rail-squeaking El train is very effectively heard, yet, the lonely mood is not carried through. One wonders what is holding Erie from simply going up the stairs and to bed? Why does he suddenly change his mind? Why does the clerk gain his attention instead? Where is the body language? The play is dampened because the concept that Erie and his listener are both trapped and lonely people is not made clear enough. One can ask these questions and others that may come to mind as the actors and moderator offer an audience discussion after each performance.

Despite its production flaws, if you have never seen “Hughie,” you will enjoy some good acting by great performers, relish the masterful dialogue and chuckle at the very human climax. You may even know someone in your own family that fits the characters portrayed.

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