Hughie, directed by Michael Uppendahl
At Center Stage Theater, Saturday, April 8. Shows through April 15.
Reviewed by Charles Donelan
In the late 1930s, A.J. Liebling wrote a series of pseudo-ethnographic essays for the New Yorker about the Broadway hotel culture of “telephone booth Indians.” These small-time hustlers stood all day in the lobby payphones of the less fashionable midtown Manhattan hotels, waiting for personal calls, too broke to make anything outgoing, but still desperately looking for an edge, some angle that would allow them another score. Playwright Eugene O’Neill knew this underworld through the experiences of his alcoholic brother Jamie, a degenerate gambler and the inspiration for several characters in O’Neill’s later work, including this one. Hughie is a short one-act — barely more than a monologue — but it brings us deep into the mind and soul of one such lost brave, the gambler Erie Smith, a k a “Room 492.”
Morlan Higgins, who gave such a memorable performance in Athol Fugard’s Exits and Entrances as André Huguenet, the Afrikaans actor, has, in Erie Smith, found another role he seems born to play. The hardboiled tone and the hustler’s often contrived bits of self-promotion are miles from the elegant languages of Fugard, Shakespeare, and Sophocles, yet Higgins appears right at home in the character’s maelstrom of neediness, high spirits, melancholy misogyny, and coarse humor.
The plot, such as it is, involves Erie’s reluctance to go upstairs and sleep after returning home from a four-day bender. He’s not been himself lately, ever since the old night clerk, a married man named Hughie, died a week prior. The new night clerk is also named Hughes, although he asserts early on that he is absolutely no relation. Gregory Sanders is wonderful in this deceptively minimal role, pitching the rowdy, Runyonesque antics of Higgins’s Smith backward with the steely nihilism of his bland neutrality.
This show offers a rare opportunity to see a performer in such exquisite balance with the heft and import of the material. As he spirals down through the detritus of his forlorn prospects, Erie Smith is forced to reflect on the powerful loss he has suffered through the death of Hughie, who was his friend and confidante. As a “sucker,” Hughie was crucial to Erie’s construction of self, operating as an antitype to the tenant’s slick self-image. This idea is dramatized in terms of their countertop craps games, which are both funded and won by Erie, “to get up confidence.” When Erie protests repeatedly that he hasn’t lost his advantages by saying, “I ain’t slippin’!” you know that he wouldn’t be saying it if it were true. The evening flies by, a tribute to the extraordinary acting talent on display, and also to the immortal words of Eugene O’Neill, which allow Erie Smith, and through him, the dear departed Hughie, to live on.