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THEATER REVIEW

Pacino's 'Hughie' a Mesmerizing Gem

August 24, 1996|AILEEN JACOBSON | NEWSDAY

NEW YORK — He lurches into the shadowy hotel lobby in a crumpled tan suit, a battered hat and fancy two-tone shoes that look like the souvenirs of flusher times. He spreads his legs wide, as though to brace himself against the buffeting of a world that is no longer as steady as he would hope.

This is Al Pacino as Erie Smith, the grieving small-time gambler and Broadway hustler of Eugene O'Neill's brief, brilliant gem "Hughie." This is the performance that is the center of much brouhaha, including sold-out celebrity-studded audiences at Circle in the Square Theatre and a closely guarded attitude toward critical attention that kept reviewers out until 10 days before the production's original closing date. (It's since been extended to Sept. 14.)

So, of course, we ask--particularly after we see Pacino's name double the size of O'Neill's in the program--whether reality lives up to expectation, to say nothing of whether the $55 regular ticket price is worth 55 minutes of play.

And the answer is yes. Pacino's performance is a delicately nuanced, varied and mesmerizing turn. He's far better than in his over-the-top portrayal of King Herod in "Salome" or his forgettable appearance in "Chinese Coffee" at Circle in the Square in 1992. As in "American Buffalo" and the film "Dog Day Afternoon," he demonstrates that he can play a loser with riveting results, though it's not so clear that Erie Smith is a loser. He's just a man who needs to revive his dreams.

What's equally interesting is that Pacino is also making his theatrical directing debut. He's made some choices that may not sit well with purists and that have drawbacks. But the production works.

Set in the summer of 1928 in the lobby of a small hotel on a West Side street in midtown New York, between 3 and 4 a.m., the play centers on Erie, who gets his moniker from the Pennsylvania town where he was born. Erie has just gone on a days-long bender, mourning the death of the hotel's former night clerk, Hughie, who was his pal and his support.

Avoiding the return to his room, Erie talks incessantly to the new night clerk, whose name is Charlie Hughes and who reminds Erie of Hughie. Or rather, we guess, Erie would like to turn Charlie into a new Hughie, someone who will listen to his tall tales of big winnings and beautiful women, admire his prowess and let him strut, in the lobby at least, as the man he'd like to be.

Hughie was a "sucker" and a "sap," but he gave Erie confidence and brought him luck. In return, Erie believes, he brought excitement to Hughie's humdrum life. As in some of the interdependent duos of Beckett's plays, Erie and Hughie needed each other. And it may be--this provides part of the play's punch--that Charlie needs Erie too.

O'Neill wrote this play--considered by some to be minor, by others to be a treasure--as one of a group of one-acts titled "By Way of Obit." This is the only one he finished. But O'Neill said it was "designed more to be read than staged." It is filled with poetic stage directions, many of them detailing Charlie's thoughts, which are keyed into the sounds of the city and his own loneliness.

Pacino has figured a way to make the stage directions palpable, adapting some of them into spoken words that Charlie--beautifully played by Paul Benedict in a deadpan performance--delivers in a microphoned, echoing voice. The street sounds, too, echo with reverberating exaggeration, while David Gallo's looming, abstract set and Donald Holder's film noir lighting add to the surreal nature.

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