The night clerk (Frank Wood) of a seedy midtown hotel is already onstage as the audience enters the Booth Theatre. His eyes glassy, he stares off at nothing in particular. An “Out of Order” sign hangs on the birdcage elevator. When Hughie begins, the hotel wakes up, its neon sing flashing to life outside and the noises of the city filtering into the lobby. The hotel looks a bit like a haunted house, and we occasionally hear creaks from above, the sounds of a building settling into itself.
The failed gambler “Eerie” Smith (Forrest Whittaker), just off a drunk, ambles inside. The old night clerk, Hughie, has just died, and Eerie has not had a win since. Hughie was a sucker, he thought gambling was romantic, and he’d lap up any story Eerie would tell. “He wanted me to be the Sheik of Araby,” he says to the new clerk, who only half-listens. “And d’you know, it done me good, too, in a way. Sure. I’d get to seein’ myself like he seen me.”
Mr. Whittaker, in his Broadway debut, does a fine job. Blinking in a rapid-fire, staccato rhythm, he allows Eerie’s desperation to seep through his cheap machismo. Eerie, after all, wants to be heard and understood, but he also wants to be misunderstood, to appear, at least before suckers, as the Sheik of Araby. His havering is both confessional and dishonest and Mr. Whittaker handles these competing interests nicely.
Mr. Wood, who has only a handful of lines, is utterly spellbinding; compelling silence, after all, is much more difficult than speech. At one point in the text, O’Neill writes that the night clerk speaks “in the vague tone of a corpse which admits it once overhead a favorable rumor about life,” and Mr. Wood’s silent deadness—which maintains a calm intensity throughout—acts in sharp juxtaposition to Mr. Whittaker’s reanimated logorrhea.
At sixty minutes, Hughie is brisk by anybody’s standards, let alone Eugene O’Neill’s. But it neatly crystallizes the themes and characters that populated his work throughout his entire career. Eerie could easily be a patron of Harry Hope’s Saloon, and Hughie allowed him to live comfortably inside his pipe dream. When he finally gets the new clerk to play craps with him, he says, “We gotta use real jack or it don’t look real.” Is there a crisper summation of the way in which O’Neill’s characters maintain a delicate balance between fantasy, reality, and outright lies?