Eugene O'Neill spent his career investigating the American obsession with what Lionel Trilling calls the destructive power of the ideal. In early works O'Neill insisted that money, status, and fame blind people to their "true selves," leaving the soul to starve. But later he became convinced that all self-images are delusions. Stripping oneself down reveals a void as empty as the indifferent universe O'Neill inherited from Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. The only way to avoid spiritual paralysis is to stake your faith in a reassuring lie--and if you acknowledge the fraud to yourself, you can retain a shred of nobility.
O'Neill's most famous articulation of this worldview is The Iceman Cometh. Shortly after he finished it in 1939 and just after completing his other bleak masterpiece, Long Day's Journey Into Night, in 1941, he composed a seemingly slight one-act, Hughie, that's essentially an hour-long character study. But true to form, O'Neill envisioned Hughie as part of a cycle (called "By Way of Orbit") made up of works in which two characters would discuss a recently deceased person, whose name would be the play's title. Hughie is the only one of the proposed cycle that O'Neill completed--and it's a good thing for Chicago audiences that he did, because Brian Dennehy's performance in the Goodman's staging is one of the season's theatrical highlights. Although the production is flawed, it's a rare thrill to see an actor of Dennehy's caliber at the top of his game bringing O'Neill's demanding language vibrantly to life.
Hughie is set in the lobby of a midtown Manhattan fleabag hotel in 1928, a place that O'Neill informs us in the script's copious stage directions "began as respectable second class" but deteriorated "in order to survive." Hughie was the hotel's longtime night clerk whose sudden death has inspired 15-year hotel resident Erie Smith to go on a weeklong bender. As the play opens, it's sometime after three in the morning and the small-time gambler, huckster, and occasional underworld errand boy is returning home. For Smith, Hughie was a special confidante, a sucker who swallowed his tales of Broadway intrigue hook, line, and sinker. Smith could count on Hughie to prop up his crumbling self-image, even though he knew Hughie's opinions were so naive as to be worthless.
This particular hour in Smith's largely uneventful life is significant because perhaps for the first time he's been cornered. He's put himself in debt to some nefarious characters by spending a princely sum on flowers for Hughie's funeral, a gesture he describes as the only real act of kindness he's ever done. Trouble is, Smith hasn't had a win since Hughie died, so the goons may be collecting their due in broken bones--or worse. But Smith's spiritual dilemma is even more dire: losing Hughie puts him in danger of losing himself. He needed to see himself through Hughie's gullible eyes to get through life. At the same time, Smith acknowledges his own self-delusion and that of others. ("If every guy on Broadway who kids himself dropped dead," he says, "there'd be nobody left.") On this particular night he develops high hopes for rescue by the hotel's new clerk, Charlie Hughes, and regales him with tales of gaming tables, horse tracks, and the boudoirs of Broadway showgirls.
Dennehy has made a decade-long commitment to O'Neill at the Goodman, where he's been a commanding presence in productions of The Iceman Cometh and Long Day's Journey Into Night. Those were towering main-stage shows, but in this quiet, scaled-down work he can let nuances speak volumes. Watching his performance is like sitting on the bench beside a concert pianist so in touch with a composition that he need never play above mezzo forte.
After director Robert Falls has given us a chance to survey the featureless details of designer Eugene Lee's dreary hotel lobby, Dennehy enters--bringing an entire history onstage with him. The weariness of yet another late night on the town, the sloppy disillusionment of receding drunkenness, the failed attempt to swagger in an ill-fitting suit, all are palpable before Smith utters his first word. "Key," he barks at the night clerk. He's a figure without hope until he pauses to give this new player in his life the once-over. Then begins the con artist's life-or-death sales pitch to Hughes in hopes he can draw a bit of Hughie out of him.
Dennehy understands the fundamental tension in O'Neill's drama: although Smith stands on the brink of despair, he cannot appear desperate if Hughes is to take the bait. As Smith works to conceal the injuries life has dealt him, he's chummy, breezy, convivial, almost boisterous at times. It's his effort to conceal his needs that makes Dennehy's performance so poignant. All that conveys the depth of his hopelessness is an occasional wince in the eyes or the brief inability to finish a thought. On opening night Dennehy reached an emotional plateau about halfway through the performance, letting Smith's stakes disappear for a stretch. Otherwise he makes those stakes blindingly present, but without letting his character's roiling emotions ever boil over.
Dennehy also exploits the rhythmic awkwardness of O'Neill's stilted, slang-heavy language, which on the page tends to lumber gracelessly. A fast talker who all too often finds language inadequate, Smith always has something to say that words can't express, and Dennehy's continual efforts to reach beyond the dialogue transform O'Neill's supposed "lack of rhetorical exuberance" (to use Harold Bloom's phrase) into a recognizable human limitation. At the same time, Dennehy delivers O'Neill's gnarled sentences with such effortless clarity that one can't help but feel he's speaking from a deeply personal place.
The problem with the production is Joe Grifasi's night clerk. Perfectly, even comically vacant with his hangdog expression, sluggish movements, and ghastly pallor, he's a one-dimensional character entirely lacking in the potential for engaged admiration that Smith needs, turning Hughie into a one-sided acting exercise. True, at one point early in the play O'Neill likens him to a "drooping waxwork" who's perfected an agreeable indifference to everything. But later on O'Neill's stage directions give the character a detailed unspoken monologue. O'Neill writes that the clerk begins attending to the early-morning noises and longing for them to turn into adventure. On hearing the footfalls of a cop he thinks, "If he'd only shoot it out with a gunman on the street!" When he hears an ambulance siren he imagines himself in an intricate pulp-fiction escapade. Of course no actor could communicate such details, but O'Neill's point is clear: this man yearns for the sort of melodramatic action Smith invents in his own life.
On the page, Smith's decision to keep working on Hughes is credible, and the clerk's eleventh-hour engagement with him makes sense. But given Grifasi's empty, unchanging take on the character, his sudden decision to "wake up" to Smith's romantic lies comes from nowhere. In the end, Smith gets passing pleasantries rather than a rescue from the abyss, and the play concludes with a near total erasure of the stakes Dennehy has established. Even if the destination is a cul-de-sac, however, the journey there is about as satisfying as any you'll find in theater.
When: Through 11/21: Tue-Thu 7:30 PM, Fri 8 PM, Sat 2 and 8 PM, Sun 2 and 7:30 PM.
Where: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Brosilow.