A few months ago, on one of my social media re-blogging hunts, I came across a quote displayed boldly white across a black space: “Be the person your dog thinks you are.” This little square of hopeful inspiration summarizes the nature of having a pet nicely. As pet-owners, we are a placed in a position of responsibility for the love, care, and well-being of another helpless animal. And the virtue of dogs (or the occasional cat) is that they reciprocate that love, without the judgment we often fear from our human loved-ones. They care without questioning, and seemingly hold us in the highest regard. It’s no wonder we become so close to our pets; they make us feel competent and loved. They make us feel like we matter.
I was reminded of this pet-owner relationship while watching Erie Smith (Forest Whitaker), a small-time gambler in 1920’s Manhattan, describe his relationship with Hughie, a hotel night clerk. Hughie’s recent death has sent Erie into a “drunk” spiral of booze, depression, and gambling losses. Hughie, in this analogy, was the admiring dog Erie could depend on for validation and love. Erie would come to Hughie with exaggerated stories of his wins, or of all the Follies girls he’s bedded. Described as a ‘sucker’ Hughie would marvel at Erie’s exploits and even fall victim to some. Hughie’s death seems to be the result of getting too deep into his own gambling debt, and Erie must certainly be feeling some guilt for leading him down that path.
This is not to say that Hughie is a dog-like victim of his owner’s failings. Hughie must have seen in Erie an escape from his slow, redundant lifestyle as a night clerk and family man. However, we only understand Hughie through Erie’s tribute to him. The play feels like an hour-long eulogy for the title character. But Hughie is not the only one being mourned—Erie’s confidence that is also lost. Arriving at the dreary, gothic cathedral of a hotel where Hughie once worked, he desperately seeks for validation from the new clerk, ironically named Hughes (Frank Wood).
It’s hard to maintain momentum in a play that is largely a series of monologues by the same character. Director Michael Grandage structures the production with three short interludes, using ominous lighting and gloomy music to frame the continuing action. This attempt at pacing feels a bit forced—I would rather have sat in the awkward, even agonizing silence of the Erie’s loneliness. In addition to pacing, the play’s dated vernacular may also be an impediment to fully identifying with Erie’s emotional turmoil.
Patron of the American outcast, Eugene O’Neill never saw his one-act, two-character play Hughie performed. Broadway first welcomed it in 1964, ten years after O’Neill’s death, and since then it has been widely revived as a vehicle for noteworthy dramatic actors, including Al Pacino (who also directed a Broadway revival in 1996), Brian Dennehy, and Richard Schiff.
Whitaker is a perfect fit for Erie in his Broadway debut. He always manages to embody the paradoxical complexity of characters like these: he is both imposing and vulnerable, grand and worn-down. His presence, as opposed to that of more aggressive character actors like Pacino, makes it seem like Erie is far more out of his depth than he has previously realized, both emotionally and financially. Can a man so deeply affected by the sensitivity and approval of others really be that great a gambler?
Frank Wood (Clybourne Park, The Nether) is always a stand-out in his roles. He brings a certain detached airiness to his delivery, largely looking out into the audience instead of at his conversant. The style matches the silent and alienating nature of Hughes’ work (here, he’s rightfully eerie). But when he does break that distracted gaze and engages Erie, the moment is all the more potent.