In today’s Wall Street Journal drama column, I report on Forest Whitaker’s Broadway debut, in Eugene O’Neill’s Hughie, which also stars Frank Wood. Here’s an excerpt.
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What happens when a screen star gets a hankering to make his Broadway debut in a demanding play? Disaster, usually. While it’s possible for a film actor with little or no stage experience to make his debut on Broadway or in London’s West End without embarrassing himself, he’s betting against the house. To be sure, Daniel Radcliffe held his own in “Equus” and Claire Danes hit a bases-loaded home run in “Pygmalion,” but there are any number of grisly examples to the contrary. (Two words: Katie Holmes.) I’m sorry to say that Forest Whitaker has failed to beat the odds in Eugene O’Neill’s “Hughie.”
A two-man play about a small-time gambler that was written in 1942 but not performed until 1964, “Hughie” was first acted on Broadway by Jason Robards. It’s been done twice more on Broadway since then, by Ben Gazzara in 1975 and Al Pacino in 1996, and has also been famously acted elsewhere by Brian Dennehy and Burgess Meredith. You don’t have to look far to find the reasons for its popularity. It’s an hour-long near-monologue (the supporting actor speaks a total of 391 words) performed on the plainest of sets. Not only is it cheap to mount, but it is, when done well, an incomparable showcase for a great stage actor….
All of which brings us back to Mr. Whitaker, who is the much-admired star of such widely varied films as “Bird,” “The Butler,” “The Crying Game,” “Good Morning, Vietnam” and “The Last King of Scotland.” He doesn’t seem to have done any stage roles of consequence, though, and therein lies the heart of the matter: Talented though he is, Mr. Whitaker is a film actor through and through, a pure naturalist accustomed to being seen by the camera rather than presenting himself to a live audience, and his bright, bouncy performance is as devoid of depth as his piping tenor voice. You half expect him to break into a chorus of “Luck Be a Lady” when he makes his first entrance….
Mr. Wood, whose performances in “Side Man” and the 2010 off-Broadway revival of “Angels in America” (in which he played Roy Cohn) showed him to be one of our most gifted stage actors, is infinitely better equipped to keep up his end of the deal. He sits stoically behind the front desk, looking less like a human being than a not-quite-animated cadaver, letting Erie’s snappy patter wash up pointlessly against his own torpid indifference. Every word he utters stinks of hopelessness. Mr. Whitaker, by contrast, scarcely ever manages to hint at anything beyond what we see and hear….
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Read the whole thing here.
Al Pacino talks about Hughie: