- Hughie dir. by Doug Hughes
Eugene O’Neill’s brief 1942 letter to George Jean Nathan is the standard touchstone for reviews and analyses of the one-act Hughie, and its ubiquity is understandable. The two-character, three-o’clock-in-the-morning drama about a melancholy Broadway sport and a taciturn night clerk was never produced in O’Neill’s lifetime, leaving a regrettable void of documentation—neither grousing nor gratitude from the dramatist about problems solved or worsened as the work got on its feet. Additionally, the script has a conspicuous tic: the Night Clerk barely speaks, yet he is given a near-riot of written articulation in the form of unspoken stage directions. As Erie Smith, the voluble small-time hustler, waxes on about his mock triumphs and paralyzing regrets while memorializing the recently deceased Hughie, the hotel’s previous night clerk, the stage directions read, “The Clerk’s mind has slipped away to the clanging bounce of garbage cans in the outer night. He is thinking: A job I’d like. I’d bang those cans louder than they do! I’d wake up the whole damned city!” It is a characteristic description, tantalizing in its clarity—but how to put it on the stage? O’Neill mused to Nathan that any satisfying production of Hughie might require some combination of sound and film, but added, “Let whoever does it figure it out. I wouldn’t want to be around to see it.”
Seventy years on, director Doug Hughes has taken up O’Neill’s suggestion of voiceover and video possibilities in his production for Washington, DC’s Shakespeare Theatre Company. The hour-long show cleverly camouflaged several video screens into the dingy beige walls of Neil Patel’s vast and vacant purgatorial hotel lobby set. Now and then Erie’s reveries cued a mood or memory that Hughes and projection designer Darrel Maloney depicted [End Page 266]
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with gauzy images that manifested and vanished like dreams. A woman’s face, for instance, flickered into view before shifting and dissolving as if erased by a creeping layer of soot. This image and others never suffered from on-the-nose obviousness, nor were they a constant presence in the design. They tactfully underscored Erie’s haunted storytelling.
The voiceover was a greater threat to upstage the acting, or so it seemed as laughter greeted early stage directions drily uttered by Reg Rogers (whose radio-ready voice, redolent of blunt 1930s–1940s announcers, was recorded, not live). Laughter was an unanticipated factor a year ago as the STC staged the aside-filled Strange Interlude (a production that indirectly led to this show when actor Richard Schiff, joining the STC for a benefit event last year, noted the Interlude poster and suggested Hughie). Rogers’s deadpan stage directions, coupled with the granite postures and blank demeanor of Randall Newsome as the Night Clerk, sometimes added gravitas, but it also continued to trigger comic relief periodically through the performance. O’Neill’s colorful language was welcome, to a point, as it helped round out both the late night cityscape and the largely wordless clerk. But it did not resolve the challenge of fully rendering this character. Al Pacino also tried [End Page 267] voicing the stage directions in his 1996 production, which Schiff read with Pacino in very early preproduction stages. For a Hughie last year in Toronto, the Night Clerk’s stage directions were rendered in supertitles. The quest continues.
The core of the show, of course, is the actor playing Erie Smith, a part that has been donned by such major O’Neill interpreters as Jason Robards and Brian Dennehy. Schiff’s turn was magnetic yet offhand as he shuffled into the shabby lobby and coolly initiated the slangy chat and one-sided banter with Newsome’s fleetingly cheerful but durably...