NEW YORK (AP) — Many stage plays have problems with their second acts. Some plays have issues with bloat and clarity. "Hughie" presents a math problem.
Eugene O'Neill's one-act play runs about an hour and requires two actors, but they don't share the load equally. The gambler at the work's heart speaks virtually unanswered for the duration. So it's short and strenuous and unbalanced — a demanding little equation.
Thankfully, the new Broadway revival that opened Thursday at the Booth Theatre calculated the answer, largely by picking the perfect people for the jobs: Forest Whitaker and Frank Wood onstage, Michael Grandage as director and Christopher Oram for his shabby, evocative hotel set.
Oscar-winner Whitaker makes his Broadway debut entering the hotel from its revolving doors. It's 3 a.m. on a summer day in 1928. He is playing Erie Smith, a low-level hustler and spinner of tall tales. Wood plays the hotel's night clerk, as vacant as he is bland. The recently deceased night clerk, Hughie, seems to haunt the rundown fleabag.
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. Despite being on the losing side of a drunken bender, he never seems able to walk up to his room to sleep. He craves human kinship.
"I got a lousy hunch when I lost Hughie, I lost my luck. I mean I've lost the old confidence. He used to give me confidence," Erie says sadly.
Whitaker handles the overripe dialogue — "Say, is that on the level?" and "I ain't a sap" — without overplaying it, and adds nervous touches like his constant folding and unfolding of little pieces of paper, somehow looking for reassurances in his pockets. He is a fine successor to the part played on Broadway before by Jason Robards, Ben Gazzara and Al Pacino.
Wood, a Tony-winner, mostly ignores Erie out of a clerk's practiced self-defense, appearing to listen but really just spacing out. 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. It is perhaps an even harder task than what faces Whitaker, but Wood is perfectly clipped and standoffish.
"Hughie" was written after O'Neill's triumphant "The Iceman Cometh" and "Long Day's Journey Into Night," and might at first seem to lack the richness of those works. But Grandage lets it breathe and the actors make it work as a parable about connecting and disconnecting in modern life.
By the time the clock hits 4 a.m. and the sun peeks out, there's something deeply satisfying about this little play, which O'Neill himself may never have expected anyone to actually mount on a stage. Thank goodness it has been, especially with Whitaker in the lead role.