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In the desolate foyer of an unnamed New York Hotel, circa 1928, two men are engulfed by the figurative darkness of their uninteresting lives. Such is the setting in Eugene O'Neill's Hughie as seen in South Stream Production's brisk, well-paced take on the rarely performed work. The two men, played with acute attention to detail by Brook North and David Klionsky, preoccupy themselves with their own sort of entertainment to keep from facing the empty beds waiting for them at the end of the night (or shift). The end of the day means endless thoughts of regret, sadness, and missed opportunities, which is why, when both men find one another on this night, they attempt to connect with stories – well, at least Erie does. He tells an elaborate story concerning the former night clerk Hughie, who reminds Erie of the current clerk. Erie paints Hughie to be someone he could con and prank, being met with a, "You sure know how to fool a guy, Mr. Erie."
"A sucker," Erie calls him. "He was a real sucker, and he was the best."
Erie's story devolves rather quickly from light-hearted nostalgia to regretful self-reflection on his own mistreatment of people who sincerely appreciated his kindness. From the looks of Erie's jittering antics and spitting of clichéd phrases of the day (which would have made any fan of Edward G. Robinson proud), we can believe him when he comes to realize that he has been anything but sincere to the people he's met. Even now, with the lonesome present night clerk at his disposal, he takes advantage of the man's time. And as he begins to enter the elevator to depart to his room, he breathes a sigh of relief: tomorrow, nothing will change. Hughie will still be gone and he'll find some other poor sucker to pester. Anyone who would listen, I guess.
This play, written after O'Neill penned Long Day's Journey into Night and The Iceman Cometh, may feel like an afterthought of an American master given its length – clocking in at one-hour – and lack of central events. O'Neill described the play as "...[requiring] tremendous imagination… Let whoever does it figure it out. I wouldn't want to be around to see it." He never was, passing away before the play's premiere.
In this production at Sonorous Road, the intimacy is so personal that the actors may as well sit in your lap and speak the lines to you. Whether this is a strength or weakness of the production is unclear. Many audience members may enjoy being so up close and personal with North and Klionsky, so as to catch their subtle shifts in facial expressions more easily. Others, such as myself, may desire some distance. The intimacy makes the play feel more like a living room drama and sacrifices room for these small souls to get lost in.
In this production, North and Klionsky switch roles nightly, giving each a chance to shine in each role. The night I saw it, Brook North delivered a shaky performance as Erie, hustling rapidly through moments of the monologue in ways Erie may hustle through booze or dames. North's New York accent was a bit forced and lacked some consistency in the first half but resolved itself in the second half. Klionsky portrayed the clerk with an admirable amount of comedic timing in the few moments the character got to speak. The bare set by Jennifer Sanderson fit the width of the theater well and Laura Parker's costumes were convincing to the period.
Director Andy Hayworth's affection for these characters shone through, although the looming doom of the duo's fates felt a tad too affectionate throughout. By the end, however, the play redeems itself by offering a glimmer of hope for these "two lonely bastards." While Hughie may not be the guttural punch you expect from O'Neill, this production makes a case for it being a suitable, watered-down substitute for those interested in exploring the depths of the human soul through a master playwright's characters.
Hughie continues through Sunday, June 5. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.