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Photo: Marc Brenner Review
No one can exactly blame Forest Whitaker for signing on to the latest Broadway revival of Eugene O’ Neill’s “Hughie,” now at the Booth Theater. First, the Oscar-winning thespian is making history by being the first African-American to handle the role of Erie Smith, a loquacious down-on-his-luck gambler in 1928. And two of his Broadway predecessors (Jason Robards and Ben Gazzara) earned Tony Award nominations, theoretically giving Whitaker a shot at adding another statuette to his over-crowded mantle.

But the question remains: Is this any way to treat your loyal fans? Yes, I know O’Neill’s short play has his admirers, but I’ve always been firmly in the other camp. The 55 minutes or so of this virtual monologue can seem as long as the author’s epic “The Iceman Cometh.” (Erie does most of the talking, while hotel clerk Charlie – here played with customary expertise by Tony winner Frank Wood – mostly stares in the distance.)

Erie’s reminiscences about his nights spent gabbing to Charlie’s predecessor, Hughie, many of them tall tales where he elevated his status in New York’s gambling world, aren’t all that interesting; neither are his observations about Hughie’s marriage or the former state of the hotel where the play takes place (here designed to a fare-thee-well by Christopher Oram). What O’Neill wants us to appreciate – and even spells out – is just how lonely Hughie is behind his bonhomie. He’s talking to stave off his inevitable solo climb upstairs (figuratively and literally), but why are we listening?
To his credit, Whitaker, making his stage debut under the guidance of director Michael Grandage, manages to capture Erie’s good-time exterior and his gift of gab; there’s enough charisma in the actor’s persona that you kind of wonder why he hasn’t been more successful in life. But that well of loneliness behind the bravado, the deep-down despair that Erie barely hides, isn’t really present in Whitaker’s performance. It creeps in for a moment (just as the sunlight does at play’s end), but it’s far too fleeting to make us feel much for Erie.

In the end, by the sheer brevity of the play, its repetitive nature, and Whitaker’s semi-successful star turn, I believe we’ve all been shortchanged.
By Brian Scott Lipton

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Forest Whitaker, Frank Wood

Open/Close Dates
Opening 2/25/2016
Closing 3/27/2016

Preview Open/ Preview Close Dates
Preview Opening 2/8/2016
Closing Open-ended

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Theatre Info
Booth Theatre
222 West 45th Street
New York, NY 10036