Forest Whitaker’s ‘Hughie’ comes up short

There’s a reason why Eugene O’Neill’s 1942 two-hander “Hughie” is usually presented on a double bill with another play: it …

There’s a reason why Eugene O’Neill’s 1942 two-hander “Hughie” is usually presented on a double bill with another play: it is only an hour long and is essentially a rambling monologue, with a few lines here and there for a secondary character.

Producing “Hughie” as a stand-alone drama on Broadway (and at Broadway ticket prices) is pretty questionable, even with an distinguished cast comprised of Academy Award winner Forest Whitaker (“The Last King of Scotland,” “The Butler”) and Tony winner Frank Wood (“Side Man,” “Clybourne Park”) and direction from Michael Grandage (“Red,” “Frost/Nixon”).

Put it this way: by the time that “Hughie” is over, “Fiddler on the Roof” is barely halfway through Act One.

“Hughie” (which was not produced during O’Neill’s lifetime) revolves around Erie Smith (Whitaker), a gambler who has apparently been on a losing streak since the death of Hughie, who was the desk clerk at the hotel where he lives.

Arriving home in the early hours of the morning in a drunken stupor, Erie proceeds to aimlessly rant and rave about his life and living conditions to Charlie Hughes (Wood), the new clerk.

Christopher Oram’s towering set design of a decaying hotel lobby is visually impressive but inappropriate for such a small piece.

Whitaker gives a hyperactive yet sensitive performance that reveals the unease and desperation behind Erie’s jovial exterior, while Wood does a fine job serving as the blank-faced listener.

If “Hughie” is too short and slight for you, try instead the Roundabout’s starry revival of O’Neill’s lengthy and masterful family drama “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” which is about to begin previews.

If you go

“Hughie” plays at the Booth Theatre through June 12. 222 W. 45th St., hughiebroadway.com.

Matt Windman