'Hughie': Short Showcase For Tall Talents of Al Pacino

It's worth the dollar a minute to see the star, raspy voice and all


One-act play by Eugene O'Neill. Directed by and starring Al Pacino.

At Circle in the Square, New York.

Extended to Oct. 9.

Much to the benefit of New York theatergoers, Al Pacino in recent years has made Circle in the Square one of his stomping grounds, showing up every few years to tackle a challenging theater role. Currently, for a limited engagement, he's starring in Eugene O'Neill's one-act "Hughie"; the play, a virtual monologue, affords the actor ample opportunity to display his chops.

Originally produced in 1964 after O'Neill's death, "Hughie" is one of the playwright's lesser works, but it does contain the themes of illusion, regret, and existential angst that permeate his work.

Pacino plays Erie, a down-on-his-luck gambler living in a Times Square fleabag hotel. Returning home late one evening after several days on a drunken binge, he encounters the new night clerk, a replacement for the recently deceased Hughie. Erie, in the form of a stream-of-consciousness monologue, attempts to make friends, but the clerk, bored and preoccupied with his own thoughts (which the audience hears in amplified form), isn't interested. The main topic of Erie's diatribe is his friendship with Hughie, who always lent an ear toward the gambler's probably exaggerated tales of fast living. Erie becomes increasingly frustrated with the new clerk's inattentiveness, but eventually the two men, recognizing each other as two of society's misbegotten, form a kind of bond.

This slight work clocks in at under an hour, and much has been made of the fact that, with a ticket price of $55 for this production, fans are paying a dollar a minute to see Pacino. But it's worth it; the last time he played this theater, the actor, almost unrecognizable in heavy makeup, was camping his way through Oscar Wilde's "Salom."

Here, performing a role originated by Jason Robards, he is utterly in his element. Even his weathered features and raspy voice work for him as they serve to accentuate the character's seediness. The actor, who also directed the production, seems to be having a marvelous time. He scores the maximum number of laughs with Erie's world-weary but often hilariously funny observations.

Pacino the director has wisely played down the moody atmospherics of the piece to concentrate on the essential reality of the characters.

As the clerk, Paul Benedict offers sterling support, his deadpan expression and deep-voiced monotone perfectly reflecting his character's despair. Incidentally, this character's inner thoughts, which O'Neill presented in the stage directions, are spoken by the actor, his voice modified with an electronic echo.

David Gallo's minimal set (a front desk, some scattered chairs, an urban backdrop), Candice Donnelly's suitably tacky costumes, and Donald Holder's somber lighting add just the right touches.

But ultimately, "Hughie" is a showcase for Pacino. The only thing that will disappoint his fans is the evening's brevity. They may be rewarded for their patience, however; there are rumors that he will be back next year starring in a revival of the same playwright's "The Iceman Cometh," which clocks in at more than four hours.

*Tickets are hard to come by for this production, which has been extended twice. (The success couldn't come too soon to the beleaguered Circle in the Square, which just filed for bankruptcy.) Starting Sept. 15, 100 seats per show will be sold for the reduced cost of $20 each.

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