Andrew Schlessinger delivers a tour-de-force performance as a down-on-his-luck hustler in Hughie, a quirky Eugene O’Neill one-act that will be of greatest interest to fans of the Nobel/Pulitzer-prize-winning playwright.

 Under Martha Demson’s polished direction, Schlessinger plays “Erie” Smith, a gambler who’s been on a losing streak since the death of Hughie, the hotel clerk who was, to hear Erie tell it, his closest (and perhaps only) friend.

On this summer night in 1928, Erie has once again shown up at his favorite fleabag hotel post-bender only to find a new clerk manning the desk, the “young squirt they took on when Hughie got sick” having apparently gotten the sack.

Though Charlie Hughes (Joe Hulser) shares the same last name as his predecessor, that would appear to be all the two night clerks have in common, since Charlie spends most of O’Neill’s playlet only appearing attentive to Erie’s soliloquizing while not quite managing to hide the fact that his mind is elsewhere.

 Over the course of Hughie’s under-an-hour running time, Charlie and the audience get a crash course in Erie and his friendship with the late Hughie.

We learn of Erie’s early near-marriage to “this doll in Erie” who one day “wakes up and finds she’s going to have a kid” and since “she didn’t have no idea who, she holds a lottery. Put about a thousand guys’ names in a hat—and drew one out and I was it.” Rather than face the music, Erie took it on the lam for Saratoga, and yet another of the horse races that he claims have had him “in the big bucks more’n once,” though clearly not recently.

Erie spends a big chunk of Hughie eulogizing his late great bestie, “one grand little guy” who was also “the kind of sap you’d take to the cleaners a million times and he’d never wise up he was took.” He also recalls the one any only night Hughie invited him to dinner, only to have his friend’s wife take such an aversion to him (in Hughie’s words, “Irma was brought up strict. She can’t help being narrow-minded about gamblers.”) that no more invitations were forthcoming.

As you may already have surmised, O’Neill’s one-act is the very definition of “talky,” with one man doing almost all the talking. A  glance at the published play, however, reveals almost a novella, the playwright providing a detailed description the two characters’ appearances, e.g. Erie’s face is described as “long and narrow, greasy with perspiration, sallow, studded with pimples and ingrowing hairs.” O’Neill also goes into great detail about Charlie’s thoughts during Erie’s soliloquies. (“The clerk’s mind has slipped away to the clanging bounce of garbage cans in the outer night. He is thinking: ‘A job I’d like. I’d bang those cans louder than they do! I’d wake up the whole damned city.’”)

 Not surprisingly, neither Schlessinger nor Hulser particularly fit O’Neill’s overly detailed descriptions, but no matter. As for the clerk’s thoughts, we in the audience are left to divine them on Charlie’s poker face (though thanks to Peter Carlstedt’s sound design, that “clanging bounce of garbage cans in the outer night”—along with each and every other one of O’Neill’s very specific sound effects—is expertly rendered).

Ultimately, for this reviewer at least, Open Fist’s Hughie revival succeeds primarily as an acting showcase for Schlessinger, following in the illustrious footsteps of Burgess Meredith, Jason Robards, Ben Gazzara, Al Pacino, and Brian Dennehy. From his distinctive gait (a sort of drunken cock-of-the-walk walk), to his gravely, somewhat slurred speech, to his train-wreck-about-to-happen manner, Schlessinger is one terrific Erie Smith. (The actor would also make a great Willy Loman, Arthur Miller’s salesman sharing much in common with O’Neill’s own quietly dying salesman of sorts.)

In a role which has him delivering only an occasional interjection, Hulser makes the very most of the O’Neill’s taciturn night clerk, his outwardly deadpan facial expressions speaking volumes.

 Scenic design consultant Bruce Dickinson has adapted the stage setting of the concurrently running Foote Notes to suggest a rundown 1920s hotel, though not with the detail that a mainstage production would allow. (Having some audience members seated “in the lobby” is a nice touch.) Dan Reed’s lighting and A. Jeffrey Schoenberg’s costumes give Hughie a fully professional look. Hanna Kruger is stage manager.

Though I can’t confess to being a fan of Hughie the play (or of the O’Neill oeuvre for that matter), anyone interested in fine acting would do well to catch Schlessinger and Hulser in this niftily staged performance showcase.

Open Fist Theatre, 6209 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood.

–Steven Stanley
November 21, 2012
Photos: Maia Rosenfeld

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