Review Roundup: HUGHIE Opens on Broadway - All the Reviews!
The highly anticipated Broadway revival of Eugene O'Neill's Hughie starring Academy Award winner, Golden Globe Award winner & BAFTA winner Forest Whitaker (The Last King of Scotland, The Butler, Southpaw) and Tony Award winner Frank Wood (Side Man, Angels In America, Clybourne Park), officially opens tonight, February 25, 2016, at Broadway's Booth Theatre (222 West 45 Street).
Directed by Tony- and Olivier-winner Michael Grandage (Photograph 51, Red, Frost/Nixon), Hughie will play a strictly limited engagement. Grandage reunites with Tony Award winner Christopher Oram (Sets & Costumes), Tony Award winner Neil Austin (Lights) and Tony Award winner Adam Cork (Composer & Sound).
Summer, 1928. New York City. Beyond the bright lights of the Great White Way, a small-time gambler and big-time drinker returns to the faded hotel he has made his home. He encounters a new night clerk at the front desk and as the early hours of the morning give way to another dawn, he continues to chase the American Dream in order to survive. Hughie is a rarely seen theatrical masterpiece that beautifully investigates the themes of loneliness and redemption and offers a unique insight into the human condition.
Let's see what the critics had to say...
Michael Dale, BroadwayWorld: 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...Sadly, Whitaker's performance is far too undistinguished...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.
Ben Brantley, The New York Times: In Michael Grandage's gentle, churning dream of a revival of Eugene O'Neill's "Hughie"...Erie is portrayed by that excellent actor Forest Whitaker, in a transfixing yet modest Broadway debut. Mr. Whitaker provides all the anchoring physical detail that you might expect from his meticulously observed screen performances...Yet as you watch Mr. Whitaker pacing, twirling, brooding and taking endless inventory of his pockets...you wouldn't be surprised if he just evaporated before your eyes. This is not to suggest that Mr. Whitaker is low on stage presence. But instead of cranking up the heat and the volume in the way you associate with barnstorming star turns, he gives the impression of someone who always feels the tug of invisibility, of nothingness. As Erie natters on in an eager, fitful string of clichés...Mr. Whitaker quietly breaks your heart.
Mark Kennedy, Associated Press: Smoke effects, Adam Cork's ghostly music, which fills a few long pauses, and the rumblings of the busy street outside give this "Hughie" a spectral, slightly macabre feel. It has the effect of making these two men more meaningful and of deepening the meaning of the play. Whitaker's confidence grows as his Erie becomes comfortable around the new night clerk. As he gets looser and more animated, the actor also shows the gnawing loneliness of Erie, his disgust and also the respect he shared with Hughie...Whitaker handles the overripe dialogue...without overplaying it, and adds nervous touches...One of the pleasures of reading O'Neill's script is the extended interior thoughts of the night clerk, which somehow Wood must translate onstage beyond a general sullenness...Wood is perfectly clipped and standoffish...Grandage lets it breathe and the actors make it work as a parable about connecting and disconnecting in modern life.
Marilyn Stasio, Variety: Forest Whitaker is blessed with an air of warmth and decency that shines through in film roles like the one he played in "The Butler." Michael Grandage...has directed him with considerable sensitivity as Erie, the forlorn gambler in Eugene O'Neill's "Hughie." Erie feels abandoned after the death of the hotel clerk who was his only friend and lucky mascot. But Whitaker's warmth can also be a hindrance, as it is when the star, making his Broadway debut here, must also convince us that in better days he was a confident and happy-go-lucky sporting man...What Erie wants is his luck back, a need made palpable in Whitaker's heartfelt performance.
David Rooney, The Hollywood Reporter: Eugene O'Neill's 1942 play, Hughie, is a moody character study about the comforts of self-deception as a buffer against bleak reality...In Hughie, the central character's purgatorial imprisonment in empty boasts and fragile illusions is ongoing, generating more muted drama...Whitaker conveys the tireless braggadocio but also the pathos and creeping desperation in this unquiet character, a classic O'Neill type who plasters over the void in his life with exaggerations and lies. With his sleepy eyes, soulful voice and fluttering hands, Whitaker is a superb actor who can wear sorrow like a baggy overcoat. However, as watchable as he is, the real star of Michael Grandage's production is the design team.
Linda Winer, Newsday: Fortunately for us, Oscar winner Forest Whitaker sees enough in the down-and-out loser to make him the daunting challenge and justification for his Broadway debut. And what a quietly satisfying, touching pleasure this production...turns out to be...Whitaker, who hasn't been onstage since the movies snared him after college, brings a buoyant, sweet, almost delicate sensibility to the breakable soul in the baggy suit and bow tie who has grandiose self-delusions...it is hard to imagine a more compelling, almost silent, witness than Frank Wood as the new clerk. With little more than a disbelieving blink and a dry stare, Wood dares us not to acknowledge this as a two-character drama.
David Cote, Time Out NY: Yes, the accomplished film star is listed in the program and speaks Erie's lines, but he misses the spirit of the character, leaving an unmistakable void not to be confused with the playwright's poetic nihilism...A lot goes well: Frank Wood provides able support as a new night clerk...Wood's role is tricky, requiring long stretches of deadpan stillness and barely active listening, but he fills it well. The physical production - sleekly directed by Michael Grandage - is grimly gorgeous to a fault...We get it: Erie is a damned soul in torment - but Whitaker portrays him as a low-status, apologetic schlemiel who's already given up. When he should be a big-talking con man and Runyonesque swell, Whitaker tries something possibly more realistic, but ends up blunting O'Neill's punchy lines...as we wait for Whitaker to gain confidence in his character, the night grows long and weary.
Robert Kahn, NBC New York: The likable actor, an Oscar winner for "The Last King of Scotland," is brave to spread his wings to Broadway, but his performance, at least for now, is disappointingly one-note...Whitaker, north of 6-feet-tall, manages to slouch and slink into the role. He plays Erie as consistently content, but such joviality doesn't seem to fit the circumstances...There must be a deep unhappiness and loneliness within him; we just aren't seeing it. Whitaker delivers his dialogue in an oddly staccato style. Maybe he's still trying to find his footing with O'Neill's rhythms. Wood's challenge, as the new clerk, is to react professionally, even though he'd rather not engage in mindless chatter...Wood does a remarkable job radiating detachment.
Elysa Gardner, USA Today: Never mind that Forest Whitaker's distinctly textured baritone has added authority and nuance to a range of complex and sometimes outsize characters...Erie Smith, Whitaker's role in a new revival of Eugene O'Neill's Hughie (* * * out of four stars)...is, in contrast, a diminished figure...Erie's voice sounds higher and more nasal than Whitaker's does normally, and he wields it with a New York accent...and a strained sense of self-assurance...British director Michael Grandage...emphasizes the play's bleak intimacy here...Whitaker makes his character worthy of compassion. Erie can, without question, come across as a lout...But Whitaker brings an awkward sweetness that makes his desperation not only pitiable but accessible.
Joe Dziemianowicz, New York Daily News: This "Hughie" is hooey. It's not that Forest Whitaker's acting is bad in this high-profile revival. It's that this likeable Oscar winner is not doing any discernible acting to speak of...Whitaker...is simply reciting his lines rather than embodying Erie Smith...Whitaker offers was no connection or depth. That's a shame, since there's plenty to play as Erie, who's down on his luck and living on illusions...Director Michael Grandage...comes up short with a production that lacks high points...Christopher Oram's scenic design is an unqualified success...If you tire of Whitaker's disconnected talk, gaze at the faded tin ceiling or the broken elevator. They're subtle signs of former glory.
Elisabeth Vincentelli, New York Post: Forest Whitaker may have an Oscar under his belt (for "The Last King of Scotland") but his Broadway debut is largely inconsequential -- he brings no heft or insight to Erie Smith, the small-time gambler in Eugene O'Neill's two-hander, "Hughie"...Whitaker's soft-toned take is laudable -- without making much of an impression. You're more likely to remember the gorgeous set: the darkened lobby of a ghostly hotel, dominated by a steep, foreboding staircase. Michael Grandage's direction emphasizes a spooky atmosphere that makes you wonder if the characters -- Frank Wood plays the other, mostly silent, one -- are dead and in some kind of purgatory.
Matt Windman, amNY: There's a reason why Eugene O'Neill's 1942 two-hander "Hughie" is usually presented on a double bill with another play: it is only an hour long and is essentially a rambling monologue, with a few lines here and there for a secondary character...Christopher Oram's towering set design of a decaying hotel lobby is visually impressive but inappropriate for such a small piece. Whitaker gives a hyperactive yet sensitive performance that reveals the unease and desperation behind Erie's jovial exterior, while Wood does a fine job serving as the blank-faced listener.
Jeremy Gerard, Deadline: Forest Whitaker plays Erie, whose ensuing near-monologue takes up most of Eugene O'Neill's brief one-act drama of a man whose fragile delusions crack and turn to dust under the stolid gaze of an indifferent stranger. It's a brave, if odd, choice for a Broadway debut, this meager work that reads better than it plays...The biggest miscue of Michael Grandage's production (whether the choice is the director's or the star's, it's impossible to know) is that Erie seems to believe his bullshit. He lacks the sense of desperation that O'Neill says will overcome Erie during the course of this dark hour...There is no sense of the growing panic that will lead to Erie's final revelation about his loss of confidence after Hughie's death...The result is a failure to lift this small work into the tragic realm to which it aspires. It remains stubbornly small. That's surely as much O'Neill's fault as Whitaker's. But it's Whitaker we've come to see.
Robert Hofler, TheWrap: In between Erie's many monologues, Grandage interjects speechless longueurs in which the actor either sits or stands around with nothing to do as shades of green sweep over him like waves of smog...On stage, Whitaker's voice is much higher pitched than in the movies...Whitaker uses that contrast in sound and appearance to superb effect, giving a whimsical edge to the character...Whitaker delivers a most endearing Erie, right down to the nervous giggle he adds to punctuate the character's otherwise bottomless despair. It's a sign he's still living. That kind of vital sign is completely missing in Wood's equally disturbing night clerk.
Steven Suskin, The Huffington Post: The Academy Award-winning actor Forest Whitaker...is an actor we want to see and who's work we want to see. Unfortunately, he is now at the Booth playing Eugene O'Neill's stemwinding character Erie Smith, a character he hasn't been able to crack...Hughie--as the playwright suspected--is not quite workable as a stage piece. A character study, and a rich one; but not a satisfying play...Whitaker appears to have the thing properly memorized, and has developed something of the swagger of a washed-up small-time gambler. His rendition of Erie Smith, however, never begins to come alive.
Christopher Kelly, NJ.com: Now comes Forest Whitaker, who in the new revival of Eugene O'Neill's "Hughie" swallows his words and looks deeply uncomfortable onstage. This is especially problematic given that this one-act play is essentially a monologue delivered by Whitaker's character...for any of this to work, "Hughie" requires a lead actor who can bring to Erie's mythmaking and self-aggrandizement to life; someone who can show us a man who is both pitiful yet also poignantly noble. That actor is not Whitaker, whose awkwardly staccato delivery and occasional long pauses make you wonder if he's successfully memorized his lines.
Hermione Hoby, The Telegraph: Whitaker must make sure that, unlike Eerie's audience of the lone night clerk (played by Frank Wood, perfecting an eyes-open narcolepsy), we are not bored to stupefaction. Instead, he must be sufficiently magnetic and compelling in his patter that we, the real audience, never want him to shut up...Also, the grandstanding here has to be the opposite kind of Amin's: that of a man who, deep down, knows he holds next to no power. Accordingly, Whitaker imbues Eerie's showboating with impressive understatement...it's curious that Grandage would have chosen to intersperse the play with several heavy-handed interludes in which the lights intensify, the spooky music swells and the clerk's stare becomes even more eerily vacant. Perhaps these moments are simply there for Whitaker to catch his breath.
Mark Shenton, The Stage: Star casting rules in this city and the putative reason for doing any classic play like this is an actor's desire to test their stage mettle. In this case, the mettle being tested belongs to Forest Whitaker...but this production contrives to be a non-event -- and a bit of a non-starter, in every sense...Whitaker is out of his depth and has a very hesitant stage range. He's incapable of drawing the audience into a production that while very handsomely dressed up has nowhere to go. This is the Michael Grandage Company's first project direct on Broadway and he...invests it with lots of atmosphere, but it feels like very hard work for all concerned, including the audience.
Robert Feldberg, Bergen Record: Whitaker, under the direction of Michael Grandage, gives us the character's surface. His Erie is a pleasant-enough guy with a genial laugh, but there isn't a vital arc to his story. The actor is a warm presence, but not much more.
Peter Marks, Washington Post: In Whitaker's eager-to-please though slightly pushy manner, Erie comes across as one of those fellows whose need to disclose overwhelms your ability to retreat. The intermittent nervous giggle betrays a soul of deeper insecurities than he otherwise cares to expose. And yet Erie can't help but reveal the truth of his situation, the losses and rejections he's racked up. All of this registers in the countenance of a terrific American actor, who's found a comfortable home on the stage of the Booth, when the man he plays never truly can.
Jesse Green, Vulture: Whitaker is a fine film actor who has brought method intensity and authenticity to a variety of highly dramatic characters, from Charlie Parker to Idi Amin. But the method technique isn't a good match for Hughie, even if Al Pacino made a success of Erie on Broadway in 1996. The role requires not just the deep dive into personality that the Method suggests but the huckster tricks and verbal animation of a true stage animal. (The original Broadway Erie, in 1964, was Jason Robards.) Whitaker is so interiorized he seems catatonic, with peculiar diction, a strange accent ("dolls" is rendered as "dawls"), and a way of chopping up sentences that suggests he has only a tentative grip on the lines. He moves well, which is to say idiosyncratically, with a rolling gait and a charadeslike intensity of hand movement that might well make the characterization visible if it weren't so inaudible. Even so, you spend a lot of the time looking at Wood, a theatrical creature through and through, doing much more with much less.
Photo Credit: Marc Brenner