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BWW Review: Forest Whitaker Undistinguished in a Handsomely Designed HUGHIE

A genial jazz-age loser convinced his luck is about to change, the central character of Hughie is the kind of fellow Eugene O'Neill's typewriter had a happy affinity for; the charismatic talker trying to cover up his darker side.

Frank Wood and Forest Whitaker
(Photo: Marc Brenner)

Perhaps, by writing a one-act play for him that was never produced in the author's lifetime, O'Neill was holding his creation of Erie Smith in reserve for a proper full-length vehicle.

Though set in 1928, Hughie was written in 1942 and was never seen on stage until 1958. It finally hit Broadway in 1964, in a production that starred Jason Robards.

The title character has been dead for four days when the hour-long play begins. He was the night-clerk at the run-down Times Square hotel where Erie resides. The two-bit gambler considered Hughie to be a good luck charm and after a sorry streak during his pal's lengthy illness, Erie has just come back from a four-day bender.

The play is essentially a monologue for Erie, as he tries making buddies with the new, disinterested night clerk in an attempt to change his luck. Jack Dodson played the mostly silent role opposite Robards on Broadway and the two of them paired up to repeat their performances frequently until the former's passing in 1994.

While major stars such as Ben Gazzara, Al Pacino and Brian Dennehy have played Erie, there has never been a high-profile production with an African-American actor in the role. Diversified casting is certainly welcome, but there are certain scripted challenges to overcome in the new Broadway revival that stars Oscar-winner Forest Whitaker, with Tony-winner Frank Wood as the new night clerk.

The audience could, of course, just disregard Whitaker's race, as was the case in the recent Broadway revival of THE BEST MAN where James Earl Jones, in a play set in 1960, appeared as a former president of the United States.

Frank Wood and Forest Whitaker
(Photo: Marc Brenner)

But the more interesting idea for Hughie would be to see Whitaker as a black man of that era who would be welcome to stay at a midtown hotel that employs a white clerk. It's mentioned that Erie has been taking showgirls from the Ziegfeld Follies, all of whom would be white, up to his room. There's also a question of whether or not he associates with big-time gamblers like Legs Diamond and Arnold Rothstein.

Sadly, Whitaker's performance is far too undistinguished to believe his Erie would merit such status. Under Michael Grandage's direction, he's a rather ordinary, friendly presence, who continually speaks in a repetitive sing-songy rhythm. There's little depth, or even vocal variety in his portrayal and the proceedings get dull quickly.

It would be unfair to say that Wood steals the show with his tiny role, but his fine, understated turn is a lovely display of a stage actor's craft.

The very handsome production features an imposing, ghost-like hotel lobby interior by Christopher Oram, who also designed the costumes, with properly unsettling lights (Neil Austin) and sound (Adam Cork).

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From This Author Michael Dale