Your socially narcissistic tendencies are totally chill, according to playwright Eugene O'Neill, so long as you are a self-described first-rate gambler. O'Neill's absurdist, existential play Hughie, currently onstage at East Burnside's Imago Theatre, is a strapping demonstration of the fine line between the success of a production and the sturdy bones of a script.
A moth-eaten Manhattan hotel is the backdrop for this two-person play, which, for the record, is more like a one-person monologue with intermittent trickles of white noise from the 1928 L train. A gambling man enters a sleepy hotel lobby where he discovers a new night clerk. The problem: The gambling man really liked the old night clerk, but he is dead. His resolve: He'll just keep talking the new dude's ear off until the conversation gets good.
Hughie asks too much of the night clerk, and also the audience. The night clerk, a wiry and contemplative man named Charlie Hughes (Sean Doran), initially gives one-word responses to everything the gambling man, Erie Smith (Todd Van Voris), throws down at him. But things take an unnatural turn about 15 minutes before the curtain call. All too suddenly, Hughes is fascinated rather than disgusted by Smith's gambling and the fact that Smith might know other, even more famous gamblers than himself. This part of the script is jarring, considering how Smith has been slurring something about gambling for 30 minutes already, and then, out of nowhere, the two start merrily playing dice together- (at Erie's expense) atop the clerk's desk. This sudden turn is perplexing. The guy I was sitting next to in the audience may have said it best. After the show, he told me he'd "have to think about that one for a while" to decide how he felt. I concur, dear sir. Something didn't sit well, and it wasn't the audience; the Imago is a very comfy theater.
Luckily, the actors make up for their characters. Van Voris reminds us that Erie isn't just a self-entitled douchebag, but actually does somewhat resemble the existential dreamer he spends far too much stage time promoting himself as. As for Doran, illustrating his character's signature behavior—namely a lack of attentiveness—must have been either excruciatingly difficult or flawlessly easy to pull off, with so few lines.
See It: Hughie is at Imago Theatre, 17 SE 8th Ave., 503-231-9581. 7:30 pm Friday-Saturday and 2 pm Sunday, through Sept. 18. $15-$25.