Theater Review: Two Leads Diverge in a Darkened Dive in Hughie | Arts

Theater Review: Two Leads Diverge in a Darkened Dive in Hughie


  • photo by Jennifer Sanderson
  • Hughie
★★★★ (David Klionsky version)
★★ (Brook North version) 
Through June 5
Sonorous Road Theatre, Raleigh

A few occupations, like Formula One racing, rattlesnake farming—and acting, of all things—demand an acute, ongoing focus on the present. But in most other trades, it’s an eye for the longer term that survival favors.

No one thinks, “You know, if I play my cards right, fifteen years from now I should be coming off a five-day bender in a third-rate dive somewhere in New York City.” It’s the kind of fate that happens when someone hasn’t looked ahead.

But that’s where we find “Erie” Smith, a has-been gambler, underworld nobody, and two-bit ladies’ man, at the start of Eugene O’Neill’s Hughie, an atmospheric one-act drama whose regional premiere at Sonorous Road Theatre comes close on the heels of a February Broadway revival starring Forest Whitaker.

In titanic works like The Iceman Cometh and Long Day’s Journey Into Night, O’Neill was a playwright of great reckonings. But in Hughie, at three in the morning on a hot summer night (the perfect time for an existential crisis), a fading Broadway dandy—a life writ small if ever one was—confronts three uncomfortable truths in the urban purgatory of a side-street flophouse lobby.

After the only person who looked up to him—the milquetoast hotel night clerk of the title—suddenly dies, there’s no one left for whom he can play the big shot. Worse, since Hughie’s death, Erie hasn’t won a single bet: an especially hazardous development because he’s now in debt to the mob. And most frustrating of all, Erie can’t begin to convince the somnolent new night clerk about his predecessor’s importance—or Erie’s, for that matter.

This South Stream production at Sonorous Road presents two different versions of the play, a rarely used casting stunt. Actors Brook North and David Klionsky trade roles on different nights in this two-hander—unevenly, we should note, since North takes the lead in six of its ten scheduled dates.

That’s a problem because, during Saturday night’s double-header, Klionsky clearly gave the better performance of the two. Granted, North’s interpretation of the failing gambler is closer to the shifty glances and low, guarded tones (intended to foil nonexistent eavesdroppers) in O’Neill’s vivid description of the character. By contrast, Klionsky’s Erie is all puff and bluff, a man whose sense of self remains fundamentally overinflated despite the clueless rejoinders of North’s deeply dazed night clerk.

But under Andy Hayworth’s direction, North’s verisimilitude betrayed the enterprise on Saturday when he rushed, swallowed, and mumbled his lines throughout a performance that ran much faster than Klionsky’s. We savored the menace North found as Erie became increasingly fed up with the new clerk’s somnambulism. Still, the smart money at this point is on Klionsky’s more coherent take. Place your bets. 

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