Recently, Eugene O’Neill’s last one-act play, Hughie, written in 1942, finished a limited run at the Booth Theatre. It starred Forest Whitaker, the excellent actor who has given brilliant screen performances, starting with Fast Times at Ridgemont High back in 1982, and gave a predominant turn as the dictator Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland, which won him an Oscar and a shelf-full of other accolades.
Tackling O’Neill’s Erie Smith role in Hughie is a role of enormous difficulties. It is almost an hour-long monologue in a play that basically lacks any action. It’s been fodder for a long list of first-rate actors since it premiered here in the United States in 1964 after runs in Sweden and London.
The character Hughie, a West Side hotel's night clerk, is dead when the play begins. It turns out that Erie Smith is a two-bit gambler who admired Hughie. He arrives at 4 a.m. at the cheap hotel after a long day and night of mourning his pal Hughie. Erie looks a little bleary-eyed, a little hungover, but now wants to celebrate Hughie with the hotel's new night clerk, Charlie Hughes, (Frank Wood) an innocuous fella in his 40s who seems disinterested and preoccupied. The seedy hotel is much like the ones O'Neill memorialized in Anna Christie and The Iceman Cometh. Erie just talks and talks about his lamented friend, and the desk clerk pretends to listen while allowing his imagination to range beyond the lobby of dreary hotel to places that would be more exciting
Hughie was created as one of a series of short dramas, which were to be jointly called By Way of Obit. O’Neill, having drafted scenarios for the five others, tore them up and burned them in the fireplace at their last home, the Hotel Shelton in Boston during 1953. Later that year he died there on Nov. 27. O'Neill is quoted in one of his biographies as saying that “nobody must be allowed to finish my plays.” This was what he told his third wife Carlotta Monterey, and she felt it was useless to argue with him. He was wracked by a progressive illness that caused his hands to shake and prohibited him from writing any longer. His illness was mistaken for Parkinson’s disease.
O'Neill recognized Hughie's limitations as a play, and it is often presented with another one-act play, making it a double-bill theatrical evening. O'Neill believed the play might be staged effectively if the monologue of Erie Smith were combined with scenes on a movie screen depicting what is going on in the head of the hotel clerk while Erie is talking about Hughie. He abandoned this idea, apparently because he could not work out the details efficiently. He also didn't have the ambition to work out or complete his plan. It was an exciting idea, and very contemporary, and would have united the play and the movie into a single production.
Each of the actors who has taken on the role of Erie Smith has approached it in a different way. For Jason Robards, the first to perform it in the States, it was a sort of boastful continuation of his Hickey role, Theodore Hickman, from The Iceman Cometh, which had brought him stardom off-Broadway several years before. Ben Gazzarra took on anger and threw verbal punches at Hughie. In the production of the play I saw in Chicago a few years ago, Brian Dennehy turned the monologue into a long beautiful piece of poetry. Al Pacino made it into a dazzling one-man show about Erie Smith. Whitaker's approach was quieter. Pacing the hotel's lobby grieving his loss of Hughie, he seemed like a man emotionally clothed in depression. Hughie was his only friend, and now he is just another cannoneer on his own in the city.