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.