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‘Hughie’ review: Mute beauty

By Brett Campbell
September 12, 2016
Featured, Theater

It is one of those hotels, built in the decade 1900-10 on side streets of the Great White Way sector, which began as respectable second class but soon were forced to deteriorate in order to survive. Following the First World War and Prohibition, it had given up all pretense of respectability, and now is anything a paying guest wants it to be, a third class dump, catering to the catch-as-catch-can trade. But still it does not proper. It has not shared in the Great Hollow Boom of the twenties. The Everlasting Opulence of the New Economic Law has overlooked it.

Those are the opening lines of Eugene O’Neill’s late career play Hughie. But you won’t hear them in Imago Theatre’s entertaining new production, running through September 18, or in most any other, because that evocative writing doesn’t appear in any of the scripted dialogue. What audiences who attend any straight production of O’Neill’s script will experience is essentially an extended monologue, delivered here by one of Oregon’s finest actors, Todd Van Voris.

Sean Doran and Todd Van Voris in Imago's 'Hughie.'

Sean Doran and Todd Van Voris in Imago’s ‘Hughie.’

While many will find this rarity well worth seeing just for what’s onstage, I can’t help feeling that this Hughie is a missed opportunity to fully realize one of American theater’s most oddly powerful theatrical inventions.

Already a Nobel laureate in literature and a three time Pulitzer Prize winner for drama, O’Neill wrote Hughie (part of a projected but never-completed cycle of seven one-acts) in the midst of the fertile early 1940s late career stretch that produced the autobiographical masterpieces Long Day’s Journey into Night and A Moon for the Misbegotten, and just after The Iceman Cometh. Compared to those legendary epics, Hughie might be considered the runt of that very special litter: a brief one-act (often paired with other short plays) featuring only two characters, it’s rarely produced, though the main character, Erie, has attracted actors as accomplished as Jason Robards, Al Pacino, Brian Dennehy, and Ben Gazzara.

In the wee hours of a summer night in 1928, Erie, one of those long-winded loudmouths you don’t want to sit next to on the Max or a plane, unleashes a torrent of blustery, boastful, bombastic and ultimately heartbreaking blather upon the fleabag hotel’s night clerk, who has the same last name, Hughes, as his unrelated predecessor. The original Hughie died a few weeks before the play opens, precipitating a days-long drunken escapade from which Erie, who counted the hotel clerk as one of his only friends, or at least one of the only people who’d put up with his harangues, is just returning.

Todd Van Voris as Erie in Imago's 'Hughie.'

Todd Van Voris as Erie in Imago’s ‘Hughie.’

So both Hugheses, past and present, must patiently endure Erie’s endless tales of his good fortune and prowess with women (“dolls” or “frails”), racehorses (“bangtails”) and other gambling. But since Hughie died, Erie can’t catch a break in his gambling, owes money to mobsters, and worries that his confidant’s death has jinxed him. The uninterested Night Clerk offers only a few distractedly polite responses to feed Erie’s illusion that they’re having a conversation rather than a one-way disquisition.

Gradually, we realize that Erie’s late night logorrhea is really his attempt to persuade the Night Clerk, the audience, and most of all himself that he’s not the heartbroken failure we know he actually is. Erie’s final recovery of that self confidence is a palliative self-deception rather than a poignant act desperation.

As staged here then, Imago’s Hughie is a character study, a miniature portrait of a lovable loser. Van Voris’s committed performance as Erie reminded me why I and Portland audiences have missed seeing him on city stages much recently. With his expressive voice, irresistible charm and charisma — he’s a little larger than life, but then no one expects gritty realism from Imago anyway — Van Voris easily commands the stage for the whole performance. His timing keeps the audience chuckling through the script’s sly doses of humor, and he’s even able to persuasively pull off the script’s last minute switcheroo that in less able hands would seem unconvincing. It’s great to have him back.

Hidden Dimensions

But there’s a lot more to Hughie than a character sketch. It’s not a solo. It’s a duet.

Unfortunately, the audience doesn’t know that, because O’Neill’s real genius emerges not only in Erie’s monologue, but also in, of all places, his script’s stage directions. And here’s where Imago’s production, like other conventional interpretations, fails to reveal the genius hiding beneath the lines uttered onstage.

“When I first read the piece it was somewhat humorous to me that O’Neill would go to such great lengths describing the inner life of Night Clerk,” director Jerry Mouawad wrote in a press release. “At first, I thought the stage directions were intended to flesh out the role of Night Clerk, but it soon became evident this was to inform the entire play. These are very precise images, thoughts, and subconscious stirrings, that taken in context with the larger work paints a brush stroke on which Erie’s tales hang.”

But they’re painted in invisible ink. As the mostly silent night clerk, Sean Doran is restricted to using his facial and other physical reactions and timing of his few lines to imply what he’s feeling. And even those must be further covered by the mask of politesse he must wear to avoid offending a talkative customer. If any theater knows how to portray emotion without words, it’s mime-born Imago (famous for its Frogz and other shows that rely solely on movement and costume), and Doran’s deftly nuanced reactions hint at underlying tensions beneath the mask and paint a silent portrait of a polite, colorless family man stuck in a dead end job.

Doran's Night Clerk dreams.

Doran’s Night Clerk dreams.

But there’s no way any actor can silently evoke, through expression alone, the full eloquence of something like this:

‘A fireman’s life must be exciting’ His mind rides the engine, and asks a fireman with disinterested eagerness: ‘Where’s the fire? Is it a real good one this time? Has it a good start? Will it be big enough, do you think? I mean, big enough to burn down the whole damn city?’ ‘Sorry, Brother, but there’s no chance. There’s too much stone and steel. There’d always be something left.’

A few fragments of this and other internal monologues do peek through in the clerk’s limited dialogue, but not nearly enough to convey Hughie’s real essence: a duet depicting two different species of 20th century losers, who survive by forming a symbiotic relationship in which each reinforces the other’s fantasies of a richer life than the one they’re trapped in together. Deprived of an inner life of the kind only hinted at in Erie’s recollection of his encounters with the real Hughie, the Night Clerk is merely a foil for Erie to vent to, a mirror in which Erie always can make himself look good.

At the same time, forcing Erie to carry the entire show places a too-heavy burden on that actor to seize the audience’s attention for an hour of almost uninterrupted declamation. Van Voris is certainly more capable of holding a stage than just about any other Oregon actor, but you’re always conscious of the fact that it’s a tour de force of capital A Acting, undermining a sense of immersion that would make us really feel these characters’ pain. The alternative would likely be tedium, but I can understand my companion’s complaint that Erie felt over acted. The applause at the end of the show we caught suggests that much of the audience disagreed.

Eugene O'Neill in 1936.

Eugene O’Neill in 1936.

So O’Neill’s script does pose insoluble dilemmas to director and actor. Maybe Hughie wanted to be a novelette rather than a play, and it’s hardly fair to criticize a director for not obeying the playwright’s apparent wishes to leave the night clerk’s inner life hidden.

“I’m a director who likes to take a classic and give a fresh look,” Mouawad wrote. “However with Hughie, there’s no need to do that here and I shouldn’t. If I can give this work a straight ahead staging that is of merit, I’ll be more than happy.” But the fact remains: if you stage Hughie as written, you get a neat two dimensional portrait of a three dimensional story.

Yet of all the theaters in Oregon, Imago — with its eagerness to break convention, even in stagings of classics like No Exit — seems perfectly suited to realize Hughie’s concealed dimensions. In fact, director Mouawad’s production, cheerfully disregarding strict fealty to the playwright’s intentions, nudges tentatively in that direction, twice freezing the action and using amplification and lighting to allow the Night Clerk to voice some of those inner thoughts, as Mouawad also did effectively in Imago’s recent The Lady Aoi.

But with only a couple such intrusions, played for laughs, they come off as puzzling distractions, just like the portentous pauses used to punctuate Erie’s otherwise incessant monologue. They do provide a needed break in the otherwise relentless tone, but also stall the play’s momentum. If Mouawad had gone all in with the Night Clerk’s full inner monologues, no pauses would be needed, and we’d have a richer dual portrait instead of a single sketch.

Eugene O'Neill's desk in the family home in Connecticut.

Eugene O’Neill’s desk in the family home in Connecticut.

In fact, so lilting are O’Neill’s passages of descriptive writing in those stage directions (see the opening paragraph above), I could even imagine a Rod Serling style narrator intoning them, much as Thornton Wilder’s Stage Manager did in Our Town, which probably not coincidentally premiered a couple years before O’Neill wrote Hughie.

Imago’s signature production brilliance does shine elsewhere: the spare, appropriately seedy Twilight-Zone style set; Jeff Forbes’s lighting that places each character in his own world even while they’re conversing (if that’s the word); the scripted sounds of the elevated train, rattling garbage cans, and sirens. Mouawad really knows how to fashion a world from just a few well chosen elements.

Those touches, Van Voris’s bravura performance, and the moments of real pathos in Erie’s lines — it is Eugene O’Neill at his peak, after all — provide plenty of reason to see Hughie for what’s onstage here. But what’s left out is where the real beauty resides. I hope some Oregon theater will someday show us all of it.

Imago Theatre’s production of Hughie continues through September 18. Tickets available online

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