Review: Hughie (Alley Theatre Workshop)

Hughie playing at the Theatre Centre in Toronto perfectly captures the gritty feel of 1920s New York underground scene

I came away from Alley Theatre Workshop’s production of Hughie at The Theatre Centre thinking in a 1920s New York City wise guy accent and wishing for a glass of cheap scotch in a smoky piano bar.

The production captures the atmosphere perfectly: shabby poverty that dreams big in the dirty corners of the great American metropolis, jazz and blues all night long, too many cigarettes and booze that’s illegal so if you’re going to drink you may as well get seriously drunk.

A great part of the ambiance has to be attributed to the live music. The opening song was composed specifically for this production by Michael Sereny, who was also one of the musicians. The bluesy music, the musicians who presented themselves as inebriated night owls, and the cheap hotel of a set all work to establish the mood before the actors ever appear on stage.

Hughie is, by the nature of the script, a vehicle for a tour-de-force performance by a male actor in or around his 40’s. It’s almost a monologue by the character of Eerie, a down on his luck small-time gambler who is trying to deal with the death if his friend, Hughie, who was the night clerk at the hotel he lives in. Eerie rambles on for almost the whole 50 minute show about all the dolls he’s made (the vernacular of the time for having sex with women) and all the money he’s won and lost, always returning to the role Hughie played in his life.

Eerie is played by Michael Kash, who is certainly up to the challenge. The character he plays isn’t new or unique, and that’s kind of the point. He’s every down and out hustler that ever existed. He’s every big-talking man who would never admit openly to loving a friend, but who still keenly feels the loss when that friend is gone.

The character subjected to all this talk is Charlie Hughes, the new night clerk. He doesn’t have much to say but we get to see a lot of what he thinks via projection. This, combined with actor Laurence Dean Ifill’s hilarious facial expressions, provides most of the humour in the show. The comic relief is much needed, not only because Eerie’s boasting is so obviously and sadly overblown, but because it is so constant. Eerie talks so much and says so little that at times I felt it was a hardship to continue listening to him. But whenever I began to feel that, the moment was saved by some little joke from Charlie’s thoughts or his face.

What confused both my companion and I was the reversal that Charlie does near the end of the play: for the bulk of it he is barely paying attention to Eerie, thinking more of his aching feet and fanciful thoughts of what it must be like to be a garbageman or a fireman. Suddenly near the end he seems to be roused into interest by the gambling aspect of Eerie’s life. But Eerie has mentioned gambling every other sentence for the whole show so it seemed unlikely that Charlie had missed it altogether before that point. Is Charlie really a gambling shark? If so, why is he a night clerk? What is the little card he passed to Eerie that somehow meant something about gambling?

It’s quite possible that part of my lack of understanding here is entirely predicated on me not being involved in any way in the New York City 1920s underground. But most of the audience probably wasn’t either, and I think Charlie’s sudden change of attitude could have been staged in some way that would make a bit more sense.

Don’t go to this show expecting big action or plot. Nothing happens in it, but the nothing that happens is rich in gritty period atmosphere. Go to this show for the mood, the music and the strong performances.

 Details

 Hughie plays at The Theatre Centre (1087 Queen Street West) until March 3rd, 2012
-Shows run Tuesday to Saturday at 8 pm and Sunday at 2 pm
-Tickets are $25, Students/Seniors $20, with a special benefit performance with proceeds going to Anaphylaxis Canada on February 20th where tickets are $50-100
-Buy tickets via phone at 416-538-0988 and via email at boxoffice@theatrecentre.org

Photo of Michael Kash and Laurence Dean Ifill