Stepping into a theater to see a Eugene O'Neill play is sometimes like volunteering for a good, stiff beating. O'Neill isn't exactly known for his light, optimistic view of human relations. His best plays—The Ice Man Cometh, Mourning Becomes Elektra, Long Day's Journey into Night—are dark masterpieces filled to the brim with delusion, heartbreak, addiction and murder.
In the latter part of his career, O'Neill planned to write a cycle of one-act plays set in after-hours New York. The only one he ever completed was Hughie. Never produced during his lifetime, the play isn't often staged. One obstacle is that, like much of his work, Hughie contains lots of narrative description. O'Neill believed that a successful staging would require that this description somehow be given an active voice.
A new production of Hughie, directed by Frank Melcori, opened last weekend at SolArts. For some reason, the play is presented by the Italian American Home Theater, although, as far as I know, O'Neill's ancestry was 24-karat Irish. No matter. This production is in very capable hands.
The play is set in a divey New York hotel lobby at 3 a.m. A night clerk named Charlie suffers from a boredom so deep it can only be described as existential. His unstimulating job chews at the edges of his soul until he seems more ghost than human.
Enter Erie Smith, longtime resident of room 492, crumpled paper bag in hand, returning home after several days on a nasty bender. He tries to get a conversation going with the night clerk, but Charlie is so tortured by tedium he can't pull his attention away from his own thoughts and the night-time noises of the city. Erie only barely notices the other man's distraction. He just keeps talking and talking, eventually revealing that he went on his drinking binge because he's upset that the old night clerk, Hughie, recently died.
Erie continues to ramble, eventually mapping out the contours of a friendship. He poses as a roving gambler and a ladies' man, but with a gigantic potbelly and a hideous neck-tie that ends three inches above his belly button, it's hard to imagine that this is much more than a put-on. Unwrapping his paper bag, he pulls out an unappetizing hot dog with nothing on it. Eating half the thing in one bite, he continues to detail his relationship with the former night clerk.
Hughie, Erie says, had been a night clerk his whole life. Chained to a shrewish wife and a couple kids, he basically lived his life vicariously through Erie, thriving on stories about the gambler's exploits at the race track and in the bedroom.
Erie tries to play it tough. He says that when a guy's dead, he's dead. "He don't care, so why should anyone else?" Yet he's obviously broken up about his friend's untimely death. As he continues to ramble, you begin to think it's actually Erie who's caught in the trap of an unsatisfying, empty existence.
Melcori has a bizarre but surprisingly satisfying solution to the problem of how to present this one-act's lengthy narrative descriptions without boring the pants off his audience. A flapper with an almost cartoonishly thick New York accent, played brilliantly by Catherine Haun, renders these descriptions as if they were excerpts from some hard-boiled mystery novel. With Melcori chording it up at the piano, she also occasionally bursts into a freaky Schönbergian talk-singing schtick that helps bring a sense of playful style to O'Neill's otherwise photo-realistic story line.
As the vacuous Charlie, Alan Hudson does an immaculate job of injecting life into a character who seems to teeter on the very brink of brain death. Hudson perfectly delivers Charlie's odd internal fantasies about the cops shooting someone outside the hotel or the city burning to the ground, just so he'll have something exciting to think about. Hudson is also a master at dopey facial expressions. These help lighten an otherwise dark play.
Finally, Scott Sharot as Erie owns the stage. The program notes state that one of Sharot's acting teachers in New York once told him he was destined to play Erie Smith one day. His turn here does have the feel of destiny. Sharot creates a frumpy likeable loudmouth who becomes both a poster boy for loneliness and a highly idiosyncratic character in his own right.
The real power of this short play centers around the audience's gradual realization that Erie's moving description of his friendship with Hughie will never be noticed by anyone. The new night clerk tries to pay attention, but nothing registers. By the end of the play, you realize that Erie is largely alone in this world and will remain so. Whatever friendships he can make will never evolve into deep and lasting bonds.
That might sound bleak, and it is, in a way, but a tight structure, raw dialogue and clever conclusion make Hughie a fascinating piece of work. Despite the serious challenges of staging it, Melcori, Sharot and crew have more than lived up to the task of bringing O'Neill's seedy 3 a.m. vision to life.