Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Hughie" and "A Pound on Demand"

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note: entire contents copyright 2004 by Carl A. Rossi

"HUGHIE"

by Eugene O’Neill
directed by Catherine Baker Steindler

Erie Smith … Brian Dennehy
A Night Clerk … Joe Grifasi

"A POUND ON DEMAND"

by Sean O’Casey
directed by Catherine Baker Steindler

Girl … Ginger Eckert
Jerry … Joe Grifasi
Sammy … Brian Dennehy
Woman … Cynthia Strickland
Policeman … William Damkoehler

Brian Dennehy, best known for his film and television roles, makes his Trinity debut with these one-act plays; this was also my debut in viewing him as a stage actor. Mr. Dennehy, a large, handsome man, has won acclaim and awards for his stage portrayals of Willy Loman and James Tyrone, Sr. and is to be commended, as the program notes say, for “giv[ing] himself so generously to the stage, where the financial rewards cannot begin to match those available to him on film and television, and he has done so for the best of reasons: the desire to stretch and challenge himself…” but to add that he is “the most talented and honored stage actor of his generation,” is another kind of stretching, altogether.

HUGHIE is Eugene O’Neill’s sole completed play from a planned series of one-acts under the group title “By Way of Obit”; it was, like his later works, produced posthumously. The time: the wee hours of a summer’s morning in 1928. The place: the lobby of a run-down hotel in mid-Manhattan. Erie Smith, a small-time gambler, returns to his lodgings after going on a bender following the death and funeral of Hughie, the hotel’s night clerk. Another clerk, timid and listless, becomes Erie’s reluctant sounding board as the gambler brags about himself --- his winnings, his women, etc. --- and pays homage to the memory of Hughie, a born sucker in Erie’s eyes but also an appreciative audience to his boasts and tall tales. Largely a monologue, HUGHIE is a slow stripping away of Erie’s sham (a recurring theme in Mr. O’Neill’s work) to reveal the lonely, rootless man beneath --- the role calls for a multi-layered actor; Mr. Dennehy, charming company that he is, remains on the surface. He has often been cast as diamonds in the rough for films and television and his amiable persona --- one of guarded cheeriness --- has become his stage technique (he goes just so far in his opening up to an audience); he does, indeed, need to be stretched and challenged and his most memorable role (for me) is his American dying in Rome in THE BELLY OF AN ARCHITECT (1987) where director Peter Greenaway was the cold matador to Mr. Dennehey’s sleek, well-fed bull, repeatedly goring him with thrusts of mortality; in turn, Mr. Greenaway’s art-house film benefited from Mr. Dennehy’s large-scale suffering --- it is his closest thing to Lear, yet. For HUGHIE, director Catherine Baker Steindler also treats Mr. Dennehy as a bull, but one in the proverbial china shop, and gives him full reign lest he smash anything. The pity is, Mr. Dennehy doesn’t smash --- instead, he strolls through, and HUGHIE soon becomes a pleasant hour of Star-gazing, more or less, while gloomy Mr. O’Neill recedes into the background (and none too soon, judging by the audience’s delight at having Mr. Dennehy within touching distance). Mr. O’Neill provides detailed stage directions as to what the Clerk is thinking during Erie’s monologue --- judging by his facial expressions, Joe Grifasi (in another Trinity debut) seems to carry them out to the letter and is quietly riveting in his own right. Eugene Lee has designed an impressively seedy hotel lobby, with a monstrous front desk dominating the stage (note the pigeons up in the steel girders). The place looks and feels so much in period (pre-air conditioning) that had it existed it would have been razed to the ground, long ago.

The curtain-raiser, Sean O’Casey’s A POUND ON DEMAND, is an extended sketch where two drunken Irishmen try to sign for a pound to continue their spree; it may not build to a punchline-climax as does Anton Chekhov’s THE CELEBRATION (beautifully realized last year at Shakespeare & Company) but it has its hilarious moments along the way. The Messrs. Dennehey and Grifasi play the drunks with Mr. Grifasi bouncing about like a thirsty beagle and Mr. Dennehy lumbering behind like a St. Bernard vaguely in search of its neck-barrel. Their inspired clowning is backed up by Ginger Eckert’s harassed postal clerk, Cynthia Strickland’s huffy old bitch, and the wonderful William Damkoehler (Trinity’s Phil Hogan, last year) as the refereeing policeman. It is all such fun-and-blarney that it should switch places with HUGHIE on the program: meat and potatoes, first; rum cake, afterwards.

"Hughie and A Pound on Demand" (20 February - 28 March)
TRINITY REPERTORY COMPANY
201 Washington Street, PROVIDENCE, RI
1 (401) 351-4242

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