Some nice people over at the Herberger are willing to transport us to New York, circa 1928 — so long as we’re not looking for a big shiny city filled with bustling excitement. This is a dim, gloomy corner of New York we’re being offered, a dank lobby in a crummy hotel, where a sad old guy won’t stop talking to a night clerk who’s only half-listening.
The men, and the lobby, come to us by way of Eugene O’Neill and iTheatre Collaborative, whose production of the playwright’s seldom seen Hughie winds up the company’s 13th season.
Written in 1941, right after O’Neill completed Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Hughie was intended as part of a series of eight one-acts about people who’ve died. In each, one character tells another about the deceased in such a way that we learn about the narrator and his audience, as well. Of the series, which was to be titled By Way of Obit, only Hughie was completed. It was not produced in America until 1964, in a Broadway production starring Jason Robards, who periodically revived the piece throughout his career.
Presented as a two-character piece, Hughie is really an hour-long monologue delivered by a shady grifter known as Erie. Down on his luck since the death of his pal Hughie, the lamented night clerk in this fleabag hotel, Erie carps and fusses over his own past while the new guy, Hughie’s replacement, appears to listen. And we, held in Erie’s thrall, become his latest mark. Erie’s loneliness might hobble him if he copped to it, so he lives instead in a story he spins each night about what’s wrong with other people, and about how very right his life outside this hotel just happens to be.
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Greg Lutz, known for stage caricatures like sleazy Vegas host Jackie Fontaine, has left easy antics at the stage door. His Erie is as real as the spit he shines his shoes with, full of bluster and melancholy. In lesser hands, this peculiar mix of emotions might have been sentimental or pathetic. Lutz brings us a man who’s propping himself up with stories he wants to believe; a guy who’s mean and pathetic, but still breaks our hearts.
Christopher Haines, iTheatre’s co-founder, directed Hughie, designed the show’s marvelously tacky set, and plays the desk clerk. He listens, or doesn’t, to Erie’s story with a detachment an audience for this rare and brilliant piece of theater can’t afford. I recommend accepting iTheatre Collaborative’s invitation to Manhattan.
Hughie continues through April 16 at the Herberger Theater Center, 222 East Monroe Street. Visit www.itheatreaz.org.