If you ask me…

- Tom Holehan

HUGHIE” WITH DENNEHY AT LONG WHARF

Eugene O’Neill is arguably our greatest American playwright with masterworks like “Long Day’s Journey Into Night”, “The Iceman Cometh” and “Moon for the Misbegotten” among his classics. “Hughie”, O’Neill’s brief, mournful one-act currently in revival at the Long Wharf Theatre, was originally planned as part of an eight-part cycle of plays under the collective title, “By Way of Obit”. Each play was to deal with a eulogy of sorts, a running monologue about someone who had just passed. Sadly, “Hughie” was the only play that O’Neill completed in the cycle and is considered one of his lesser works.

“Hughie” takes place in the shabby lobby of a small midtown New York hotel during the summer of 1928. It’s early morning (3:00 am if you believe the script though the lobby clock tells us it’s well after 4:00 am) and the hotel’s bored night clerk is listening to the sounds of the city. The most recent subway has just unloaded its passengers and one of them, Erie Smith, has returned after a long bender mourning the death of his friend, Hughie. Hughie was the hotel’s former night clerk and Erie slowly attempts to transform the new man on the job into a replacement for his dead friend. Erie Smith is a classic O’Neill character. He would have been quite at home as one of the sad barflies in “The Iceman Cometh”. As Erie spins tales of his gambling successes, his pipe dreams of a better life and unrealistic fantasies (classic O’Neill themes), we soon learn that braggart Erie may have needed Hughie a lot more than the night clerk needed him.

Running under an hour, “Hughie” is basically a fairly one-sided reminiscent and eulogy given heft by Brian Dennehy in the major role of Erie. Under Robert Falls' straightforward direction, Mr. Dennehy has played the role successfully at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre and, most recently, at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Canada. He should know the role well at this point, but there still seemed to be more humor and pathos from the script that was left unexplored. Dennehy plays Erie’s obvious bravado all too well but there’s something lacking underneath his character in what eventually seems a lesser performance from this magnetic actor. Joe Grifasi, giving a master class in silent reactions, is quite wonderful as the night clerk, his face an expansive map of loneliness and boredom. It can’t be easy to stand without speaking much for most of an evening, but Grifasi shows us the art of active listening even when his clerk is off in his own world of dreams deferred.

As a full production theatergoers may feel a tad cheated by the short length of “Hughie” (especially at these prices). Produced alone it seems unfinished and slight. In Stratford, the play was paired with “Krapp’s Last Tape”, a classic Samuel Beckett one-act with Dennehy in the title role. Apparently Dennehy nixed the idea of repeating “Krapp’s” at Long Wharf and, instead, takes part (with Grifasi) in discussions with audience members after each performance. This is a good opportunity to gain insight from the actors, but a companion piece to “Hughie” would also have been a good idea.

Eugene Lee’s deftly appointed set shows years of wear and tear right down to the out-of-order elevator, well-worn chairs and peeling wallpaper. Costume designer Rachel Anne Healy has provided the perfect rumpled white suit for Erie that speaks of a life lived very much day to day. While neither a major O’Neill work nor a definitive production, this “Hughie” still has something to say, if only for 50 minutes or so.

“Hughie” has been extended at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven through November 16th. For information or ticket reservations call 203.787.4282 or visit: www.longwharf.org.

Tom Holehan is co-founder of the Connecticut Critics Circle and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: tom@stratford.lib.ct.us. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.

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