American playwright Eugene O’Neill suggested in a letter to the critic George Nathan that his play Hughie was “written more to be read than staged.”
That hasn’t stopped the likes of actors Jason Robards, Ben Gazarra, Al Pacino and, closer to home, Brian Dennehy at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in 2008 from turning Hughie into a star vehicle.
Now Toronto’s Alley Theatre Workshop is mounting a production with what director David Ferry’s program notes calls “good working-class actors.” Ferry’s hope is that a production shorn of glamour will better allow the audience to see “the world of the play.” It’s a gamble that mostly pays off.
Hughie is essentially a 45-minute monologue. It was written in 1942 to be part of a cycle of one-act plays called By Way of Obit in which one character talks to a listener about a third character who has died. In this case, hustler Erie Smith (Michael Kash) is talking about Hughie, the former night clerk at his hotel, to Charlie Hughes (Laurence Dean Ifill), Hughie’s successor.
The play is set in New York in 1928, perceived romantically as a time of prohibition, speakeasies and notorious gangsters. But O’Neill strips away that myth. Erie, “a Broadway kind of guy,” has just come back to his seedy midtown hotel after a five-day drunken binge triggered by Hughie’s funeral. As Erie talks, we discover that Hughie was his only friend.
A constant O’Neill theme is that people must cling to illusions in order to cope with life. Being able to tell Hughie lies about his big gambling wins and his conquests of Follies’ girls gave Erie stature, while Hughie got some excitement in his drab life by hearing about Erie’s spurious adventures.
Ferry has introduced a theatrical device that makes the play more even-handed. As motor-mouth Erie keeps rambling on, Charlie’s inner monologue is shown in surtitles. Taken from O’Neill’s stage directions, these thoughts tend to be very funny. Rather than just being a listener, Charlie has become a player.
We read about Charlie’s dismay that Erie is going to tell his life story. Charlie just wants this guy to go to bed. We also know that Charlie isn’t always listening to Erie. For example, at the sound of a garbage truck, Charlie thinks he might like the job of a garbage man. Meanwhile, Erie is waiting for some reaction from Charlie about something he just said about Hughie, which makes for humorous, disconnected pauses.
Ferry is right: Good working-class actors do allow O’Neill’s genius to shine through, particularly Erie’s dramatic arc. Erie comes back to his hotel a loser because Hughie’s death has jinxed him. But over the course of his monologue, Erie gains confidence as he realizes that he might have found his new Hughie. We also discover how honest Erie is in his assessment of his relationship with Hughie, how they used each other.
Kash, in his frayed linen suit, certainly captures Erie’s fast-talking, small-time hustler, with a restless energy as he prowls around the lobby and the constant snap of his fingers to emphasize a point. Ifill has a face and eyes that can express subtle nuance, absolutely mirroring his inner thoughts. His zone-out state is on a totally different plane than Kash. At this point, Kash and Ifill are more playing at the roles than being in them, but they will likely grow into the parts.
The play begins with pianist Michael Sereny and trumpeter Morgan Gardner performing Blues for Hughie, a song written by Sereny for the show. The moody tune and lyrics are a perfect kick-off. Joe Madziak’s lobby design with its dying potted plants and colourless furniture is spot on.
The overall effect of the production is that great care has been taken with every detail, allowing O’Neill’s play to be seen as the masterpiece that it is.
Hughie continues at The Theatre Centre until March 3.
- Alley Theatre Workshop
- Written by Eugene O’Neill
- Directed by David Ferry
- Starring Michael Kash and Laurence Dean Ifill
- At the Theatre Centre in Toronto
- 3 stars