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Editor: Frederick Wilkins
Suffolk University, Boston

Vol. VII, No. 1
Spring, 1983



3. HUGHIE, directed by Bill Foeller. American Repertory Theatre, Cambridge, MA, April 7 - May 6, 1983.

Hughie is a study in detritus—bottom of the barrel characters confronting the end of the road. As performed at the acronymically apt ART, it became a sharply etched mood piece whose brittleness cut away some of the text's subtlety. Bill Foeller's direction so accentuated the separation between Charlie Hughes, the night clerk, and "Erie" Smith, the "teller of tales," that by the time the clerk perked up at Erie's intimation of knowing Arnold Rothstein, it did not seem wholly plausible. There were, however, compensating factors in the production that mitigated this flaw. Prime among them were the set by Donald Soule and the "sound design" of Randolph Head.

The keynote of Soule's set was its spectral ambience, abetted by two lifesize, ghost-white figures modeled after sculptor George Segal's work—one sleeping in a chair downstage-left with a newspaper over his knee; the other standing far upstage, back to the audience, stooped and weary, with a professional bag, also all white, in his hand. While the set appeared at first to be substantial and solid—a plausible replica of a seedy mid-Manhattan hotel lobby—it was really, on closer examination, a free-floating framework of disconnected units: two worn armchairs, one a subdued but bilious green; two standing lamps, one of which repeatedly went out; a faded carpet; a round mahogany check-in desk; a tarnished cuspidor; a potted palm—stunted; and no walls. The set's openness suggested the universality of O'Neill's material, and its amorphousness adumbrated the characterizations that followed: both Smith and the clerk are caught in illusory lives punctuated by pipe-dreams and despair—lives as stunted as the palm and as frayed as the cord of the malfunctioning lamp.

John Bottoms ("Erie" Smith) and Richard Spore (the night clerk) in the A.R.T. production of Hughie. Photo by Richard Feldman.

Head's taped soundtrack provided the outside noises that fill the mind and spur the perverse imagination of the clerk—the clatter of an El train, the rattle of garbage cans, the steps of a policeman on his beat, and the shrill siren of a passing fire engine. Erie froze and the lights dimmed each time the clerk, stationary and staring dead ahead but activated internally, voiced his holocaustal hopes. And at play's end, when a crap game signals the newly forged bond between the lobby's two inmates, the sound of the dice on the desk was strikingly amplified. Like the set, the sound design added immeasurably to the effectiveness of the production.

John Bottoms was lanky and leering as an Erie Smith whose grandiloquently self-conscious garrulousness could fool no one. And his costume, the work of Lynn Jeffrey, was a triumph of tackiness. Sporting a garish, one-button, mustard-toned plaid suit, a splashy "painted" tie, loud spectator shoes and a superannuated panama hat, Bottoms wore his duds with ease, as if they were an extension of himself. But that the ease was ersatz was clear from the frenetic obsessiveness of his gestures. He was constantly on the move-especially his hands, which fiddled successively with a jangling key ring, a silver dollar, a pair of dice and a pack of cards, the last of which he flipped aimlessly at his fallen hat when the thought of the empty room awaiting him upstairs forced him to drop, in a moment of temporary somnolence, into the unoccupied easy chair. While at times a trifle mannered, and giving vent periodically to an incongruously rural horse laugh, Bottoms brought home the crushing loneliness and fear that are at the core of Smith. And his periodic glances at the offstage stairway to his solitary cell infected the air with their dread.

Aside from the internal monologues and the hint of newfound vigor at the end, Richard Spore could not be said to have brought the night clerk to life. Nor should he, for, except at those moments, Charlie Hughes is an automaton—more a mannequin than a man—and Spore managed marvelously his character's premature moribundity. His speech—perfectly articulated and perfectly dead—his immobility and his refusal to respond to Erie's aggressive banter (until the Rothstein reference) showed us that the clerk is more than an empty character, he is almost a void, except for the malicious gleam in his eye when he utters his wishes for conflagration and destruction.

Neither director nor actors succeeded completely in making the transition from separateness to communion wholly believable. A certain suspension of disbelief was necessary at that point, though Spore did grow increasingly distracted, his self-absorption was almost broken enough to make us believe that the mention of a "big-shot" gambler could get him to reach out, and the camaraderie that results permits the play to end on an upbeat note. With the shadows brightened briefly by this incipient friend-ship, we can perhaps hope that life is not completely the "rotten froth" that James O'Neill, Sr., felt it was when he died.

—Thomas F. Connolly



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