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‘Hughie’ review: Forest Whitaker’s robust Broadway debut

Forest Whitaker, right, in his Broadway debut in

Forest Whitaker, right, in his Broadway debut in Eugene O'Neill's "Hughie," at the Booth Theatre. Credit: Marc Brenner

WHAT “Hughie”

WHERE Booth Theatre, 222 W. 45th St.

INFO $25-$149; 212-239-6200, hughiebroadway.com

BOTTOM LINE Touching Forest Whitaker in an O’Neill 60-minute rarity.

Jason Robards, the late Eugene O’Neill virtuoso, used to say that many people see themselves in Erie Smith, the two-bit gambler trying to hold onto his big-shot pipe dreams in the playwright’s hourlong virtual monologue “Hughie.”

Even if we did, of course, the one-act character study is so seldom performed that most people would never have the chance to own up to their inner Erie — if they wanted to, which is debatable. Fortunately for us, Oscar winner Forest Whitaker sees enough in the down-and-out loser to make him the daunting challenge and justification for his Broadway debut.

And what a quietly satisfying, touching pleasure this production, staged by Tony-winning director Michael Grandage (“Red”), turns out to be. “Hughie” is a late O’Neill work, written as the first of eight projected one-act plays during his precious last years in the ’40s. Whitaker, who hasn’t been onstage since the movies snared him after college, brings a buoyant, sweet, almost delicate sensibility to the breakable soul in the baggy suit and bow tie who has grandiose self-delusions.

During a summer night in 1928, Erie lumbers into the fleabag Times Square hotel designed by Christopher Oram with haunting, dusty echoes of better times. Like the hangers-on in “The Iceman Cometh,” Erie doesn’t want to climb the stairs to his lonely room.

And so he talks about broads. And he talks about horses. And he carefully folds pieces of paper in his pockets and rewraps an old cigar stub for later. And, every so often, he does a little swivel dance to distract himself from dangers out the window for the debt-collecting thugs and the bad luck that started when his pal Hughie, the night clerk, died.

No matter how good Hughie was as a listener, it is hard to imagine a more compelling, almost silent, witness than Frank Wood as the new clerk. With little more than a disbelieving blink and a dry stare, Wood dares us not to acknowledge this as a two-character drama.

Oddly enough, this is my fourth encounter with “Hughie.” In 1974, Ben Gazzara played him with the kind of desperation you’d move away from on the bus. Two years later in Chicago, Robards’ Erie was a genuine charmer. On Broadway in 1996, Al Pacino brought to him a surprising elegance and restraint. I still don’t see myself in the guy, but, clearly, there is enough in him to provoke a variety of fascinating interpretations.

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