The adage that you can’t make an audience go to a show it doesn’t want to see has proved true once again with this evening’s announcement that a revival of Eugene O’Neill’s Hughie, starring Forest Whitaker in his Broadway debut, will shutter early at a total loss of nearly $3 million.
A 55-minute one-act that is primarily a monologue by a small-beer drunk and gambler who regales a hotel night clerk with tales of his now-vanquished prowess, Hughie opened last Thursday to handful of rave reviews, including the New York Times, Newsday and The New Yorker. But many of the other reviews were withering, with the Daily News exclaiming, “This Hughie is hooey.” Originally slated to close on June 12, the show now will go dark on March 27, the producers announced Thursday evening.
“Due to limited advance ticket sales following highly positive reviews and Critic’s Picks from The New York Times, Associated Press, The Washington Post, USA Today and Newsday, Eugene O’Neill’s Hughie will play three more weeks, with its final performance at Broadway’s Booth Theatre on Sunday, March 27, 2016,” read the terse statement from the producers. “The production will have played 55 performances.”
Few shows in recent memory have so divided critics as this one — a tough sell in the best of circumstances, being a downbeat play set in a crummy fleabag hotel. Nevertheless it has an illustrious production history, with Jason Robards playing the lead role of Erie Smith under the direction of the great O’Neill interpreter José Quintero, followed by such stars as Ben Gazzara, Al Pacino and Brian Dennehy.
Broadway audiences paying top prices for tickets can be fickle about stars in bad shows. Pacino recently played to appreciative houses and an active secondary market for tickets to David Mamet’s roundly dismissed play China Doll, for example. The response to Bruce Willis’ Broadway debut, in a stage adaptation of Stephen King’s Misery, drew a collective meh from critics and audiences, and while it was no embarrassment, the box office didn’t go crazy. But that play at least had two acts and a formidable foil for Willis in Laurie Metcalfe, who played the increasingly demented woman caring for Willis’s injured writer.
Whitaker, one of Hollywood’s most esteemed actors — an Oscar winner for The Last King Of Scotland — may have miscalculated the appeal of a role like Erie Smith for his Broadway debut. It certainly was a miscalculation for director Michael Grandage, whose new company produced the show. Christopher Oram’s monumental set is spectacular, but it overwhelmed the intimate scale of the play, and even while unfolding in one of Broadway’s smallest theaters — the Shubert Organization-owned Booth — it left Whitaker seeming diminished. The script denies an actor the kind of soliloquy that can lift a dark show out of the doldrums, and while those who praised the performance found it to be subtle and detailed, most of the others declared it faltering and tentative. Ultimately the audience seemed to agree with the second school of thought.
No one was leaving the Booth eager to tell their friends that Hughie was a must-see and that, ultimately, is the sine qua non of Broadway: No word of mouth, no hit.