By: Dontré L. Conerly
By the time Forest Whitaker takes his final bow for the curtain of “Hughie,” most other plays on Broadway are only ¾ of the way into their first act. Eugene O’ Neill’s 60-minute play—in which Whitaker makes his Broadway debut—usually shares the billing with another work to extend both the time and value of a night out at the theatre, if not to also provide a sense of completion to a work that lacks a sense of purpose and leaves the audience without a takeaway.
We are introduced to Whitaker, as “Erie,” when he stumbles into the cavernous lobby of the hotel where he’s rented a room, off and on, for nearly the last two decades. Over the years, he befriended the hotel night clerk, “Hughie,” whom he would regale with tales of all-night drinking and gambling benders—and the bedding of multitudinous blondes he tends to favor. Both Hughie and Erie have befallen bad times of late; the former recently deceased and the latter on a losing streak since his friend’s untimely departure.
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Dodging creditors and unable to sleep, Erie strikes up a conversation with the newly-hired night clerk, transferring his storytelling to this unlucky fellow (played by Tony-winner, Frank Wood), who listens, stoically, while his patron drones on, ad infinitum, in a single-note monologue, punctuated by the occasional rummaging through his pockets. Every now and then, the night clerk may ask a question or muster a reaction to one of Erie’s tales, but he’s mostly stone-faced, staring off into the distance while Erie chatters away.
It’s hard to fault Whitaker for the play’s failure, as he imbues as much life as he can into Erie, portraying a man who is lonely, broken, and empty. This role simply doesn’t provide the space for much of the incredible acting we have come to know from Whitaker over the years. A sharp contrast to the quiet fortitude of “Cecil Gaines” in “The Butler,” Erie is a one-dimensional character who spends the length of the work attempting to establish himself and is then abruptly disposed of. It’s an admirable performance by Whitaker in a work that seems unfinished.
Hughie won’t garner any awards for the Oscar-winning actor, but it does (further) highlight Whitaker’s range. To see the towering actor shuffle around the stage as a meek, rambling gambler is incredible to watch. . . . but this privilege comes at quite the cost for a short, 60-minute play.
‘Hughie’ runs through June 12, 2016, at the Booth Theatre.