Hours must pass slowly working nights at a hotel — there are hardly many guests coming and going, and, in a world before smart phones, no Facebook statuses to check or Internet games to play. But it was time well spent when a lone lobby clerk encounters a night-owl guest in Hughie, the Eugene O’Neill revival that opened Thursday at the Booth Theatre.
Set in the summer of 1928, the one-act play unfolds as Erie Smith (Oscar winner Forest Whitaker, making his Broadway debut) — a small-time gambler, big-time drinker, and even bigger talker— arrives in the late-night/early-morning hours at a faded Midtown Manhattan hotel he frequents and encounters a new night clerk (Tony winner Frank Wood) standing at the desk. These are the play’s only two characters, but there’s a third who’s never seen that’s equally important: the Hughie of the play’s name, the previous clerk who died somewhat recently. Erie loved passing nights with Hughie, regaling him with tales about his big bets and beautiful dames, but he’s been on a losing streak since his friend’s death and is desperate for some better luck and new companionship.
Whitaker carries the bulk of the play, with Erie’s initial swagger giving way to insecure, uneasy chatter, grasping for more stories to tell and reasons not to go up to the room he’s requested. He’s someone with a deep need to be respected and adored, and it’s never clear whether the stories he’s telling are facts, embellished truths, or outright fantasy. Wood, as the night clerk, wears a mask of indifference and feigned interest even before the show officially starts: when the audience walks into the theater, he’s already at the desk, staring in a way that’s almost unsettling. It’s one Erie tries to crack with stories about his ups and downs and Hughie’s admiration for him — which, of course, we never hear from Hughie himself. So, we’re left to wonder, What did this guy really think of Erie? Was Hughie really in awe of his luck in gambling and with the ladies, or is that just a myth in Erie’s mind?
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The hour-long show passes quickly, and as Erie’s stories get bigger, the man himself seems to get smaller. Wood is mainly confined to the desk but effectively uses small movements and changes in expression to give a window into the workings of his character’s mind. Whitaker, alternatively, has the entire rest of the stage at his disposal and uses it well, from a quiet moment in a chair wiping his brow to just beginning to make his way up the lobby stairs before conveniently finding something else to talk about — and then getting agitated once the night clerk begins asking questions about the stories he’s told.
Directed by Tony winner Michael Grandage with sets and costumes by Christopher Oram, the stage really does look like a once-grand hotel that no longer is, and ambient street noise heard at the beginning and throughout helps set the scene. The lights begin hazy and dim, but swell, along with music (designed by Neil Austin and Adam Cork, respectively) at moments such as when Erie brings out his dice for a game of craps at the lobby desk right as the show nears its ambiguous ending.
Hughie exacts complex, commendable performances from its two leads, both effectively carrying the show’s study into a man’s need for success, both real and perceived. There’s only so much a shorter show like this can answer — I was left wanting to know more about both Erie and the night clerk after I left for the night — but it’s still a hotel stay you won’t regret. B+