In his excursions into the tempestuously epic world of Eugene O'Neill, Brian Dennehy usually spends the first hour or so warming up. The guy is like a bridge going up over the Chicago River. It takes time for the bulky vintage machinery to whir, grind, think about moving, consider all the options, and finally kick into gear.
But once the edifice finally starts to roll, its progress is both immutable and a jarring vertical protrusion on an otherwise horizontal local landscape. Even the jaded have to pay it some mind.
"Hughie," the obscure, posthumously published O'Neill one-act about a lonely gambler lost in the middle of the night, it takes less than an hour for Dennehy to find himself back in the very dressing room where he began the evening.
James Tyrone would hardly have polished off his first bottle. Willy Loman would still believe his funeral will be a grand event. But after a mere 50 minutes, Dennehy's "Erie" Smith is as spent as a Beckettian tramp or yesterday's Racing Form.
O'Neill, who originally intended "Hughie" to be part of an evocatively named, seven-play series of monologue-driven one-acts called "By Way of Obit," gave him nothing more to do or say. His natural arc, you might say, is naturally arced.
Therein lies both the conundrum and the considerable pleasures of a rare Goodman Theatre collaboration between Dennehy and director Robert Falls allowing for dinner or drinks in the same evening.
Dennehy, who did this play previously with a different director, still can stare his own demise in the face. He still can lumber into the world of fleapit lobbies in the wee hours of the 1940s, where a change in the night clerk can trigger a sudden realization in a longtime guest that he is utterly and completely bereft of meaningful human companionship. He still can evoke that great O'Neill demon of self-destruction in a way that few other actors can match. But by formative necessity, he has to speed up his act.
The brow must twitch more quickly. Fear must shoot faster into the eyes. Chattiness has to be eclipsed by raw fear before half-past the hour.
It is impossible to watch Dennehy's work here without two competing impulses flooding into one's head. One is admiration for the complexity and depth of the character he forges with Falls at his shoulder. The other is the sense that "Hughie" can deliver only what it can deliver. It's a snapshot, not an album of a life. It won't be enough for some viewers, even if some of us are happy to be left wanting more.
But the text here is evocative because it kicks into the need of every blowhard in the western world for a good listener. Change the face of the Sancho Panza and every Don Quixote blows apart. Most of us get knocked off our balance when our mailman or our hairdresser or our familiar whatever calls it quits. We need somebody to tell us we look good today.
Dennehy's nocturnal flights of rhetorical fancy here are greatly aided by Joe Grifasi, who plays the unnamed and largely silent new night clerk, who has yet to learn to recognize his clients.
A study in shades of the ashen and the bland, Grifasi's sad, nondescript Mr. Cellophane melts into Eugene Lee's richly detailed and emotionally evocative set like a piece of wallpaper bereft of all dimension. It is precisely as the play requires and a quietly brilliant performance.
Aided by Falls' trademark combination of the risky and the comfortable, Dennehy has Erie down stone cold for the first 40 minutes. White suit hanging from his limbs, he roars, paces, kvetches, rumbles. Falls has the sense to stick him downstage a lot, where we can see him sweat.
And then the production stumbles.
A precise description of the problem would spoil what passes here for narrative suspense. Suffice to say that, at the end of the play, O'Neill requires Erie to pivot 360 degrees in about the same number of seconds.
Given the brevity of the lead-in, it's a very tough moment to act and direct. But it has to be made believable if "Hughie" is to work. So far Falls and Dennehy have yet to solve the happy ending. They should have time to go back.
Brief 'Hughie' full of pleasures from Dennehy, Falls
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