Halfway through “Hughie,” I checked to make sure this was indeed the play by Eugene O’Neill, rather than some recently discovered one by, say, Damon Runyon. For Al Pacino, who stars in this Circle in the Square production and has directed it, plays his character so lightheartedly, so congenially, that he seems little more than a raffish Broadway character. The role would seem a natural for Pacino, especially when you remember the frenzied loner he played years ago in “Scarecrow.”
If we sensed some of that subterranean torment here Pacino was always at his strongest when you sensed the volcano rumbling under a placid surface the play would seem more powerful, more moving than it does. O’Neill wrote “Hughie,” after all, around the same time he was working on “The Iceman Cometh” and “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.”
The character Pacino plays, Erie Smith, is very much kin to the bleary men in Harry Hope’s bar in “Iceman,” subsisting on illusions and alcohol. He also resembles the older brother in “Journey,” whose life, like Smith’s, has been ruined by frequenting the broads and bars of Broadway. “Hughie,” the title character, never actually appears onstage. He used to be the night clerk in the frowzy hotel where Erie lives. Over the years, Hughie listened as Erie, a small-time gambler, spun his fantasies about his huge winnings and the success he has had with Ziegfeld Follies girls. At times, even Erie knows it’s all hooey. “If every guy along Broadway who kids himself were to drop dead, there’d be nobody left,” he says at one point. At other times, however, Erie needs his pipe dreams and, clearly, Hughie is the only person who has ever bought his line of blarney. Belatedly, Erie realizes how essential Hughie was to him. In their loneliness and desperation O’Neill’s men need other men to confide in, to bolster their illusions about the world, about themselves. Admittedly, “Hughie” is slighter than much of O’Neill, but it does record Erie’s growing realization of how fragile his world is. When Pacino enters, his face so often gaunt and haunted seems puffier than usual, his eyes slightly buggier. He is wearing a cream-colored suit that seems too large and it gives Erie an appropriately rumpled look. We sense he is down on his luck, but we never have the sense, as we should in O’Neill, that he is a marked man, close to the breaking point. It is easy for the play to seem a monologue, especially since for much of the time the new man behind the counter (played simply and directly by Paul Benedict) can barely concentrate on Erie’s ramblings. Many of his observations are to himself (well-handled by having them miked with an echo so we know they are to himself not to Erie). But unless we really sense Erie is reaching out to the new man, unless we believe at play’s end that he has found a new helpmate on his self-delusory odyssey, the play seems trivial. O’Neill considered the city itself an important character in the story. The three-sided stage limits what designer David Gallo can do in suggesting the threatening world outside. The play would work better in a proscenium setting that would limit the stage space. Having so much ground to cover works against what should be a sense of a shabby but protective haven. “Hughie” is the prelude to the final great chapter of O’Neill’s career. Here, in Pacino’s hands, it seems just an amusing side show.
Jaunty, insecure, his voice raspy with yesterday's booze, his rumpled body spilling out of his grungy cream-colored suit, Al Pacino strolls onto the stage at Circle in the Square, hanging loose, walking short, and trying to give the impression he owns the joint.
Of course, he does. But the joint he owns is the stage - as Pacino. That studiously conveyed, mere impression of ownership belongs to "Erie" Smith, the small-fry gambler devised by Eugene O'Neill, whose character Pacino happens to be inhabiting.
Unlike most star actors, Pacino is incredibly adept at suppressing the star image without losing either power or focus.
The technique is perfectly in places so he can take and make high-wire chances and choices - an unexpected shrug, an over-the-top grimace that could be aimed at the audience but happily falls short at mid-distance, a phrase slurred mid-sentence then picked up into a shabby growl.
Eugene O'Neill's one-act play "Hughie" is a weird kind of masterpiece. It was intended as part of a whole series of one-act plays. The others, presumably in various states of completion, were destroyed, as O'Neill wished, on his death, along with virtually all his other work in progress.
It's a product of his final creative years - the years of that precious handful of O'Neill's greatest plays. The others are long and rambling. Disconcertingly, "Hughie" is short and rambling, and it is not so much a play as an emotional encounter.
It is the summer of 1928. It's hot, but the livin' ain't easy. Not here on the Rialto - where not everyone is Runyon-esquely type cast as a guy or a doll.
Erie is a Broadway hustler - gambler, gofer, on the disposable fringe of the mob - who is returning to his forlorn, flea-bitten Times Square hotel after a drunk, occasioned by the funeral of his friend Hughie, the former night clerk at this same hotel.
Erie strikes up a conversation with the new guy on the desk. It's not a match. It's an effort more reminiscent of a boy scout with two pieces of wood. But Erie is determined to have his conversation. He has earned it.
At first, the depressed but implacable clerk - politely listening with half an ear - wonders why Erie is gabbing away like this. Why is he telling me all this? And - here is the joy of the piece - we in the audience start to wonder why the hell is O'Neill telling us all this?
Then the miracle seduction happens. The clerk gets oddly interested, and so do we. The pace moves up notch by notch, the stakes rise. At the end, Erie and the Clerk have reached the beginning of the symbiosis they both need - while we in the audience are wondering just what hit us.
How did O'Neill do that? Why did we care so much? Why is the crazy resolution so remarkably satisfying? It is one of the great confidence tricks of the modern theater - because it happens ring true.
At least two actors, Jason Robards and Ben Gazzara, have already left their mark on Erie in memorable portrayals. It's a heaven-sent part for an actor who likes to embed himself in the role.
Pacino, directing himself, and with a perfect straight man, Paul Benedict, in a brilliantly delicate performance of the Clerk that would do credit to a cigar store Indian, takes the play and rides and surfs with it, in it and on it.
He makes O'Neill's words fresh-minted yet tobacco-sour, his body language runs a race-track gamut from perky confidence to shambling fear, although from first to last his face has the taste of failure in its mouth.
O'Neill wrote a playlet with the implosive force of a depth charge - and Pacino sees that it implodes and implodes and implodes, acting on our memories long after the lights are turned out.
As much as is possible for an actor appearing before a paying audience, Al Pacino likes to protect his privacy in the workplace. He doesn’t appreciate kibitzers. He also has the box office clout to sell tickets no matter what the professional opinionmongers say. Thus it wasn’t until Wednesday night that he invited critics to see his production of Eugene O’Neill’s “Hughie” at the Circle in the Square, where the two-character, one-act play has been in previews since July 25, following an engagement at the Long Wharf Theater in New Haven.
It’s now apparent that Mr. Pacino knew what he was doing. However long he took to do it, he got it right. The word this morning: bravo!
Although “Hughie” is essentially a monologue that runs less than an hour, it’s a full, richly eccentric and satisfying evening of theater. This is a star turn that serves America’s most grandly obsessed playwright and allows us to see what Mr. Pacino can do, as both the director and an actor, when he disciplines his sometimes raging talents.
“Hughie”is a very odd piece that O’Neill himself (in a letter to George Jean Nathan in 1942) suggested was “written more to be read than staged.” It’s the only play he completed in the projected cycle “By Way of Obit,” which was to be a series of two-character plays in which one person evokes the memory of someone recently deceased to someone else, who is mostly a listener.
The time of “Hughie” is 1928, and the place is the lobby of a small, once respectable second-rate hotel on a West Side street in midtown Manhattan. The place is now only slightly better than a flophouse. In the late hours of a very long night, Erie Smith (Mr. Pacino), a failed Broadway sport, gambler and horse player, bends the ear of the uninterested night clerk (Paul Benedict). Erie is just coming off a five-day drunk triggered, he says, by the funeral of the previous night clerk, Hughie.
Erie picks up his key, but he won’t go up to bed. He seems rooted in the lobby and unable to shut up, his manner by turns aggressive, boastful, self-pitying and maudlin. He talks a little about himself but mostly about Hughie, who seems to have been just as colorless and passive as his present listener, whose name turns out to be Charlie Hughes. No relation, of course, but it’s enough of a coincidence to prompt Erie to think of the years when he knew Hughie as the good old days. He says he hasn’t had a winner since Hughie was taken to the hospital.
In some ways, “Hughie” plays like a footnote to “The Iceman Cometh.” The word “pipe dream” is never used, but pipe dreams are the subject. As Erie rambles on, it becomes clear that he sees himself as having made life bearable for the forlorn Hughie. Erie dazzled Hughie with the “tramps” he brought home and introduced as Follies girls. Hughie was equally thrilled by stories (possibly exaggerated, Erie admits) of legendary crap games and winning bets on long shots. Hughie saw Erie as the trusted confidant of the mob bosses for whom, in reality, he was never more than a gofer. At the same time, of course, Hughie’s admiration bolstered Erie’s waning self-esteem.
“Hughie” is a kind of extended seduction scene in which Erie tries to implicate his new friend Charlie in his own fabulous vision of himself. At first Charlie is simply tired, or, as O’Neill writes in a stage direction, his eyes are “blank,” having “forgotten how it feels to be bored.” In this production Charlie is not quite as taciturn as O’Neill wrote him. The inner thoughts O’Neill gave him in the stage directions are now spoken by Mr. Benedict as soft asides, heard as if through an echo chamber. They’re initially jarring, sounding a bit like sci-fi sound effects that have little to do with 1928. Yet they also allow the written character to be more fully understood onstage.
Mr. Pacino’s performance is something of a wonder, helped by but certainly not dependent on his wardrobe: a cheap tan suit (the coat belted in the back), a Panama hat with the brim turned up all around, brown-and-white shoes (the kind the English call brothel-creepers) and socks of pearl gray. It’s the mind inside this ghastly outfit that animates the entire evening.
Though Mr. Pacino seems to be all over the stage, his is not a busy performance. It’s big, but it’s one of controlled exhaustion. His body suggests the fragile, tentacled mass of some sea anemone, leaning this way and that, twisting in the unseen current of his own panic. It’s a performance you see in close-up, no matter where he stands in the Circle in the Square’s usually awkward space.
Mr. Benedict is also superb. A big man with a granite face, he succeeds in making himself look empty, thin and slightly prissy, all signs of individuality having been worn away by time and neglect of the imagination. He’s a perfect foil for the desperate Erie.
The physical production is as good as any the Circle in the Square has recently presented. David Gallo’s set is minimal: the hotel desk, a large clock, a couple of ugly lobby-type chairs and an expanse of once fairly handsome marble floor. Backing everything is a dark cyclorama that suggests both the city outside and the expressionistic stage designs of Robert Edmond Jones, who worked on many of the original O’Neill productions. Note, too, Candice Donnelly’s costumes and Donald Holder’s lighting.
“Hughie” was first done here in 1964 with Jason Robards and Jack Dodson, directed by Jose Quintero. At that time, critics were inclined to resist the play’s small scale and short running time. I suspect we’re more adaptable now, especially when attending something of the quality of this production. Yet you’ll have to hurry. The original Aug. 31 closing has been extended only to Sept. 14.
On the page, Eugene O’Neill’s “Hughie” is as short as it is slight, a one-act , two-character exercise that seems little more than a secondary (if nicely rounded) scene in one of the playwright’s more fully developed works. Small wonder that the play is seldom performed, smaller still that Al Pacino chose it as his return to the New York stage. With its hard-boiled dialogue and streetwise milieu, “Hughie” is no more or less than a showcase for an actor unmatched in conveying exactly what the play’s main character is about: gritty, desperate intensity layered over hard-learned resignation and loss.
That the play is merely a showcase won’t disappoint the sold-out houses at Circle in the Square. The show’s been selling out since the first preview July 25, and those lines at the box office (the run’s been extended two weeks, from the original Aug. 31 to Sept. 14) aren’t queuing up to see minor O’Neill. This is Pacino’s show -- he directed and stars -- and the only major letdown is that he’s on and off the stage in the play’s quick 55 minutes (a dollar a minute, but who’s counting).
Even with the extension, “Hughie” will rack up more previews than regular performances, doubly odd given that the production played the Long Wharf Theater in New Haven for three weeks prior to Broadway. (Pacino and the Circle devised a similar schedule when the actor appeared in two one-acts, “Salome” and “Chinese Coffee,” at the theater in 1991.) Because of the tryout and lengthy previews, Variety opted to see and review the show prior to official opening date, Aug. 22 .
The play details a latenight encounter between a down-on-his-luck gambler and a desk clerk at the gambler’s seedy Manhattan hotel. The spare performance space , dark, moody lighting and echoic street-sound effects give the naturalistic play a style somewhere between dreamland and Harold Pinter. The result is at times more intellectually interesting than emotionally engaging.
With his hangdog face looking as worn and rumpled as the cheap suit he wears, Pacino inhabits O’Neill’s gambler as completely and (seemingly) effortlessly as he does the Circle’s troublesome performance space. If his debut as a stage director is somewhat less impressive than his performance, it’s more the fault of the talky, motionless text.
Pacino plays “Erie” Smith, a small-time gambler and occasional drug courier whose youthful dreams of Big City success have long since withered under life’s grim realities. The year is 1928, and Pacino’s Erie wanders into the lobby of his fleabag residential hotel after a long drinking binge to discover the new nighttime clerk (Paul Benedict, also quite good).
The new clerk has replaced the recently deceased Hughie, Erie’s only friend; it was Hughie who listened night after night to Erie’s inflated tales and outright lies, storytelling that would shame Damon Runyon.
Hughie, of course, was a sap, a collaborator in Erie’s self-delusion. One look at this low-life hustler reveals a lonely never-was whose talk is much bigger than his prospects. If the new clerk doesn’t see the truth, it’s only because he isn’t paying much attention.
O’Neill structured the short play as an extended conversation between the two characters, with Erie doing nearly all the talking while the bored, sad-sack clerk, barely listening, daydreams (the clerk verbalizes his thoughts for the audience, and this production effectively uses a slight echo to distinguish the “interior” dialogue). Nervously shifting his weight from one stiff leg to the other, Pacino’s Erie is smart enough to sense the indifference of the clerk but clearly terrified of relinquishing even this poor excuse for companionship. “I wish Hughie was still alive,” he says repeatedly.
What he really misses, of course, is the ability to see himself through the gullible Hughie’s eye. “When I lost Hughie,” he says late in the play, “I lost my luck.” The play’s texture comes from its careful depiction of self-deception, and Pacino beautifully walks the line between Erie’s fierce need to reinvent himself and an immovable self-awareness.
For what is essentially a performance-driven piece, Pacino’s chief accomplishment as a director is his deft handling of the Circle’s unwieldy, in-the-round space. There’s no getting around the fact that audience members will spend half the show staring at the back of Pacino’s head, but the direction at least keeps both actors moving enough to keep the customers satisfied. The director also finds the play’s considerable humor, sometimes in surprising places, and draws an appropriately droll performance from Benedict.
Perhaps some day the ever-controlling (and very busy) Pacino will return to the stage in a real play -- something with two acts and a full cast -- rather than a stretching exercise designed as a fundraiser for his beloved Circle. Judging by his tantalizing performance here, the wait will have been worth it.