The Arches, Glasgow, until Sat 17 Mar
An ageing New York gambler lords it over a luckless hotel night clerk, spinning unlikely tails of his continuing prowess in gambling and womanising. Both the gambler and the hotel have seen better days.
Such is the scene in this Scottish premiere of great American playwright Eugene O’Neill’s lovely little one-act play, Hughie. Set in 1928, the year before the disastrous Wall Street Crash (after which the United States caught a bad case of economic influenza, and Germany caught Nazism), the drama is a miniature American classic; Al Pacino famously staged the piece (casting himself in the role of the rambling gambler Erie Smith) in New York in 1996.
The recent death of the previous night clerk (the eponymous ‘Hughie’), has sent Erie on a bender ever since the old boy was buried six days before. Having, presumably, spent the last cent in his pocket on booze, he has no choice but to stumble back to the fleapit hotel where he lives; it’s the kind of place from which, in the memorable words of George Galloway in Washington DC, ‘the cockroaches moved out last week’.
Erie shifts back-and-forth between charismatic likeability and poisonous self-aggrandisement (the gambler blames his recent losing streak on Hughie’s death, and denounces the dead man as a ‘sap’ and a hopeless naïf who was always taken in by gambling tricks). The gambler’s seemingly optimistic bravado, in spite of his obviously declining fortunes, transforms him into something of a political metaphor. Like the US (and the rest of the world, which was, already in the 1920s, bound up with the US economy), Erie is clearly riding for a fall.
Andy Arnold’s production is just the latest in a long line of fine Arches’ presentations of modern American classics. It enjoys simple, yet beautifully affecting set and lighting design and is subtle and insinuating; its politics poke their heads out, like Pinter’s much-vaunted weasel under the drinks cabinet. Neil Docherty plays the new night clerk (who is, coincidentally, named Charlie Hughes) with humorous boredom, while Benny Young gives a bravura performance as Erie, the decaying Scaramouche.