Lonely Town

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

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.


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