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Hughie review at Booth Theatre, New York – ‘Forest Whitaker is out of his depth’

Frank Wood and Forest Whitaker in Hughie, Booth Theatre, New York. Photo: Marc Brenner Frank Wood and Forest Whitaker in Hughie, Booth Theatre, New York. Photo: Marc Brenner
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Eugene O’Neill’s one act play Hughie is, to paraphrase the saying about life, as short as the night is long — and certainly a whole lot shorter than O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night, also soon to be revived on Broadway.

Star casting rules in this city and the putative reason for doing any classic play like this is an actor’s desire to test their stage mettle. In this case, the mettle being tested belongs to Forest Whitaker, the Oscar-winning star of The Last King of Scotland, here making his professional debut on any stage.  And audiences are being asked to pay up to $225 a ticket to see him perform in a play that lasts less than an hour. For that sort of investment, it has to be something of an event, but this production contrives to be a non-event – and a bit of a non-starter, in every sense.

A man wanders into a down-at-heel residential hotel in New York, green neon flickering outside; Christopher Oram’s stunningly evocative design makes the stage look like an Edward Hopper painting. The man, played by Whitaker, is Erie Smith, a 45-year-old inveterate gambler, who used to shoot the breeze nightly with the desk clerk Hughie until he died; now, he’s in a brooding, reflective mood as he bends the ear of Hughie’s replacement, who happens to be called Hughes – a mostly silent, reactive Frank Wood.

And that’s it, that’s the sole action of the play. Whitaker is out of his depth and has a very hesitant stage range. He’s incapable of drawing the audience into a production that while very handsomely dressed up has nowhere to go. This is the Michael Grandage Company’s first project direct on Broadway and he, along with the invaluable assistance of composer Adam Cork and lighting designer Neil Austin, invests it with lots of atmosphere, but it feels like very hard work for all concerned, including the audience.

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Atmospheric production of a classic American playlet undermined by the limited range of its star