The very fine actor Frank Wood is already onstage when we take our seats at the Booth Theatre for Hughie, perched nearly motionless behind the front desk of a New York hotel whose glory days are beyond memory. Predawn light suffuses the spooky lobby of Christopher Oram’s ornate, monumental set with a grim pallor, even as the lurid green of a neon HOTEL sign is visible through a begrimed window. Finally Erie Smith enters, incongruously jovial, eager to make the acquaintance of Wood’s Night Clerk, Charlie Hughes, new to the premises. I’ve been on a weeklong drunk, Erie explains, following the funeral of his best friend, confidant and, not coincidentally, the previous Night Clerk, Hughie.
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 and which more appropriately belongs in a display case next to the manuscript for The Iceman Cometh or A Moon For The Misbegotten, the way artists’ sketches can shed light on their greater works.
Erie is kin to Hickey, the good-time bullshit artist who arrives at Harry Hope’s waterfront saloon determined to strip his friends of the “pipe dreams” that keep them going between benders. Erie is still caught up in his own pipe dreams: He spends most of this late-night return regaling Charlie with tales of his prowess with the ladies and his gambling acumen, of the shared times with Hughie through winning streaks and long nights when everyone got lucky. The Night Clerk stares ahead through all of this, sometimes offering a non-committal word or two, enough to urge Erie into the next tall tale.
Whitaker doesn’t appear at all to have been on a five-night bender. He’s more like Hickey at the start of Iceman, messenger of light (and drinks on the house) that populace of losers has been waiting for. “I was born lucky,” Erie tells Charlie, and indeed he appears so: His subtle plaid suit, cream colored waistcoat and matching Oxfords (the costumes also are by Oram) don’t seem to have survived any nights on a park bench or in a gutter, and neither does the chipper man who inhabits them. 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. Each story is delivered as if it had just occurred to him, carrying the same weight as the one before. 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.
This approach might leave its own kind of chill if it were accompanied by a transparently false cockiness. But that’s not in evidence here, not within the imposing set and Neil Austin’s entombing lighting, all gorgeous. 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.