A dictum by the German dramatist Hebbel says that, “in a good play, everyone is right”. That is certainly the case in this 1941 rarely seen play by Eugene O’Neill with Golden Globe Award winner Forest Whitaker as Erie Smith and Frank Wood as the night clerk.
In this Michael Grandage production Whitaker has a strong stage presence, and endows Wood with his sorrow, loneliness and palpable hunger for a friend.
It has been several days since the funeral of Hughie, the recently deceased night clerk at the rundown New York hotel Erie calls home. When raconteur and small-time gambler Erie comes home after an extended bender, he finds a new night clerk at the desk.
What happens from there on is an hour-long monologue. Erie goes on and on about his life, his tales of big wins and beautiful dolls and the glorious times spent with Hughie. Through this lengthily recap of the past, Erie reveals himself to a total stranger as a broken-down lonely man.
Although the real buzz and excitement stems from Whitaker’s central performance, the almost silent presence of the night clerk is crucial. He echoes Erie’s solitude and his desperate attempt to make a contact and find an audience. Will the new night clerk give Erie what he needs, just like Hughie did? “And, d’you know, it done me good, too, in a way. Sure I’d get to seein’ myself like he seen me. Some nights I’d come back here without a buck, feeling lower than a snake’s belly, and first thing you know I’d be lousy with jack, bettin’ a grand a race,” Erie tells the night clerk. That might just be the keystone of his performance.
Hughie, Written by Eugene O’Neill, Directed by Michael Grandage I Booth Theater. Through June 12