REVIEWS OF O'NEILL PLAYS IN PERFORMANCE
3. HUGHIE, directed by John MacDonald. A Provincetown Playhouse production, performed at the Provincetown Art Association, September 20-21, 1984, as part of the 1984 Lower Cape Fall Arts Festival.
All that's required for drama, Thornton Wilder once wrote, are "a platform and a passion or two." The truth of his remark came through in this production. The Provincetown Playhouse, while it continues to seek funds for a new theatre, must play where it can, and not always in ideal circumstances. The current challenge was to turn an open, sparsely furnished platform at one end of a large, white-walled, neon-lighted art gallery into the dingy lobby of a seedy midtown-Manhattan hotel. And the challenge was met, thanks to John MacDonald's kinetic direction of exceptional performers, the evocative lighting of Larry Buckley, and the well chosen furnishings provided by set designer Gordon Armstrong--a few faded oriental rugs, a small writing table sans drawer or chair, two other tables, a couple of potted plants (both a bit too healthy), an ancient leather Victorian chair at the center, and to the rear, at the audience's right, the darkwood arc of the night clerk's desk with a vertical array of mail slots behind it. With the added assistance of taped sounds--a series of near and distant knockings at the start, evocative of a world of empty rooms; later, the barking of dogs--disbelief was quickly and easily suspended.
Stephen Joyce, as Erie Smith, entered the gallery
at our right, staggered and lurched across in front of the platform,
sat wearily on the steps at the left, took one last swig from a
near-empty bottle of Canadian Club, tossed it into a trash can, and
resignedly mounted the steps to the lobby, his garish clothes unkempt,
his straw boater at a rakish angle. With a sharply shouted "Key!" that
managed momentarily to stir the near-moribund clerk, the "teller of
tales" set to work, scattering words that quickly evoked two
lives--his own, and his late comrade Hughie's--and littering the
The quoted words are the clerk's own, from one of the numerous stage directions in which O'Neill provides his third of what is essentially a three-man story. And their absence from the performance was symptomatic of the one flaw in an otherwise outstanding production: the clerk, though he came to life at the end, remained an incomprehensible cipher. Of course the fault is the playwright's: he knew that what he had created couldn't be played in a conventional way, since the script, despite its abundance of dialogue for Erie, is as much a short story as a drama. Unless we hear what the clerk hears--the numerous sounds of violent activity outside the small clearing of the lobby--and also hear his nihilistic inner reactions to those sounds, his part in the triumvirate necessarily remains a blank. (There's just one moment when the inner thoughts spill over into dialogue. Agreeing with Erie's description of life as a "goddamned racket," he urges resignation to it "because--Well, you can't burn it all down, can you? There's too much steel and stone. There'd always be something left to start it going again." Erie is naturally jolted by this sudden, impassioned outburst, and so was the Provincetown audience. Its laughter was understandable, since it had heard neither the sounds that repeatedly draw the clerk's attention away from Erie's monologue nor the inner iceberg of which his words are but the tiny audible tip.) In a conventional production the point of view is limited to Erie's, and much of the play's richness remains untapped. Mr. Zukerman did very well with what he was allotted; his non sequiturs, when Erie's pauses forced a response from his non-listener, drew as much laughter as Erie's subsequently sarcastic retorts; and his "resurrection" near the end was fully believable. But a deadpan expression simply cannot reveal or suggest all that O'Neill tells us is churning feverishly beneath the surface; and what the night clerk was resurrected from remained, in this production, largely a mystery.
Of course there's more to Erie too than meets the ear and eye, and Stephen Joyce captured brilliantly--vocally, physically and emotionally--every nuance of the character, both the jaunty, swaggering surface and the "sentimental softness behind it." One remembers his constant uneasy restlessness, the terror in his periodic failures to leave for the empty room upstairs, and, at the end, when dice rattle on the counter, the surge of a real confidence that the earlier bravado had merely shammed. The con man has found a new sucker (read friend), and the game of life can go on. Mr. Joyce looks very much like O'Neill's description of Erie, and his voice is rich and varied. When he sat in the leather chair and recalled his visit to Hughie's home, one almost saw the other figures. And when he remembered the interrupted story he'd told Hughie's kids--a touchingly quiet moment in his reminiscences--he revealed another whole side of Erie: the quiet, gentle figure locked inside the wisecracking Broadway sport. If a national O'Neill company is formed, Stephen Joyce should definitely be a member. There's many a role in which he would be superb.
Two thirds of Hughie, which is all a traditional stage production can offer, is better than none. And the Provincetown production, though I'd wished for more, made for a memorable evening and deserved a longer run. I hope it reaches other platforms; its passions are the genuine article.
--Frederick C. Wilkins
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