Theater Reviews: A Miscast Hughie and a Cheesy-Fun Pericles

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Frank Wood and Forest Whitaker in Hughie, at the Booth. Photo: Marc Brenner

On the stage of the Booth Theater, the scenic designer Christopher Oram has built a magnificent ruin of a once-respectable hotel, complete with double-height lobby, an antique elevator, and a stairway to the upper floors that’s big enough for a Federal monument. But a huge set for a small play is usually compensating for something. In Michael Grandage’s production of Hughie, the dreary O’Neill two-hander from 1942, it’s pretty clear what that something is. Forest Whitaker, who does 98 percent of the talking in the 60-minute one-act, hardly makes an impression. He spends most of the play caged like a hostage in a small strip of space at the middle of the stage, while Frank Wood, as his unwilling interlocutor, is stuck behind the desk of the hotel, now a seedy fleabag, trying not to listen. The vast architecture is all but unused; at one point, Whitaker walks a few steps up the stairs but quickly comes back down.

And so is the emotional architecture left uninhabited. Whitaker plays “Erie” Smith, a small-time Broadway lowlife living on the fumes of his elaborate self-deceptions. Crap games, Follies dolls, two-bit thuggery, and betting on the bangtails are the subjects of the stories he compulsively rehearses, hoping to spark an emotional connection with the new night clerk, Hughes. But Hughes isn’t as fascinated as the old night clerk, a dope not coincidentally called Hughie, was; living hungrily through Erie’s adventures, Hughie verified and valorized the fantasist’s existence. Hughes, barely paying attention, does the opposite, throwing Erie into a psychological crisis that gives the play its shape but, as performed by Whitaker, never occurs.

Whitaker is a fine film actor who has brought method intensity and authenticity to a variety of highly dramatic characters, from Charlie Parker to Idi Amin. But the method technique isn’t a good match for Hughie, even if Al Pacino made a success of Erie on Broadway in 1996. The role requires not just the deep dive into personality that the Method suggests but the huckster tricks and verbal animation of a true stage animal. (The original Broadway Erie, in 1964, was Jason Robards.) Whitaker is so interiorized he seems catatonic, with peculiar diction, a strange accent (“dolls” is rendered as “dawls”), and a way of chopping up sentences that suggests he has only a tentative grip on the lines. He moves well, which is to say idiosyncratically, with a rolling gait and a charadeslike intensity of hand movement that might well make the characterization visible if it weren’t so inaudible. Even so, you spend a lot of the time looking at Wood, a theatrical creature through and through, doing much more with much less.

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In his 50-year career, Trevor Nunn, former director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, the National Theatre of Great Britain, and, well, Cats, has staged 34 of the 37 canonical works of Shakespeare. His production of Pericles for Brooklyn’s Theatre for a New Audience — his first with Americans — makes No. 35. Except for checking off another conquest, it’s a peculiar choice; Pericles is constructed like a summer-vacation movie, with about as much coherence and consequence. One loses count of the shipwrecks and reincarnations. Scholars attribute its jumbliness to dual authorship, arguing that Shakespeare wrote only the second half, some 827 out of 1,662 lines, which is a convenient analysis for Bardolaters because those lines are by far the better ones. The first half, mostly a pileup of misfortunes and coincidences as Pericles finds a wife, fathers a child, and loses both, is what Ben Jonson called it: a “mouldy tale.” The rest, despite its miraculous recoveries, offers emotional depth and verbal gorgeousness akin to the rest of the late Romances, for which it sometimes seems like a test drive.

Nunn has thrown everything he knows how to do, circa 1975, at the text. There are scrim and silhouette effects, sailcloth and rigging, jousts, dances, windstorms and brainstorms, complicated hats and a fortune’s worth of Fortuny pleats. Beefing up the large cast further are a three-piece band and the seven-man American roots-music group PigPen, performing tons of incidental music and song, much of it lovely, by the Irish composer Shaun Davey. This all looks and sounds grand in the deep thrust arrangement of TNA’s Polonsky Shakespeare Center, but a variety-show aroma seems to cling to the proceedings. Gower, the poet-narrator figure who sets the scenes and provides color commentary, is as winky as Graham Norton and as florid as Aladdin’s Genie. We are not surprised when Boult, the requisite comic lowlife in the brothel scenes, wink-winks-and-says-no-more as if he were Eric Idle. Actually, he’s John Keating, a fine grotesque.

I’m not complaining. Something has to be done with the weaker material in Pericles in order to make way for the stronger, and it might as well be cheesy. The good news is that Nunn has cast actors, most playing two or more characters, who can serve the cheese but also the verse, so the beauty pops as much as the humor. I particularly enjoyed John Rothman’s King Simonides, jovially eager to marry off his daughter to the least prepossessing suitor. (Wouldn’t you know it, that suitor turns out to be Pericles in disguise.) And the King and Queen of Tarsus, played by Will Swenson and Nina Hellman, made a movingly dignified couple, despite her Seussian hat. (The queen’s transformation into a vengeful monster, as she watches her daughter wither in comparison to Pericles’s daughter Marina, is particularly well done, much of it in mime.) But the bulk of the responsibility for the play’s pathos obviously falls on Pericles himself; Christian Camargo speaks the verse beautifully and traces the Prince’s emotional collapse with affecting dignity. The late scenes in which he can hardly face the possibility that all his misfortune may yet be redeemed are still powerful enough, despite the noisy antics that led to them, to remind you why Shakespeare is Shakespeare, especially when exploring ambivalence. If Pericles is about anything it is the perversity of human nature that makes our wishes as painful as our losses.

We need not guess about Nunn’s wishes. Though he has just two more Shakespeares to go — arguably the most popular of all (A Midsummer Night’s Dream) and certainly one of the least (King John) — he has already announced that what he’ll be directing next is the Broadway revival of Cats, which begins performances on July 14. Quel fromage!

Hughie is at the Booth Theatre through June 12.
Pericles is at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center through March 27.