Brendan Deeds ventures into the small hours with Eugene O'Neill's Hughie

Eugene O’Neill’s plays often focus on characters who live on the frayed edges of mainstream society and who maintain a fragile existence in a haze of self-deception and despair, drunks, gamblers, petty thieves and prostitutes. This short, one-act play is no different.

Manhattan, 1928, in the lobby of a shabby hotel, we find two-bit gambler, Erie Smith. Weary but restless after a five-day bender following the funeral of the old night clerk, Hughie, he stumbles to the reception desk to shoot the breeze with Hughie’s replacement.

Neil Docherty is a tall, imposing figure but he manages to make his night clerk seem small and Eugene O'Neillnondescript. He slumps over the table, his wan face suggesting a life deprived of imagination and pleasure.

Though Docherty has so few lines, his presence is essential. His silences echo the emotional void within the babbling Erie.

Played with passion by Benny Young, Erie Smith is lonely and luckless. Admitting to haggling a hooker down from ten dollars to two, he later tries to convince the clerk, and himself, that he is a high-rolling city-slicker who could bring home a Follies girl any night of the week.

While Erie claims that his tales of rubbing shoulders with mobsters and winning big on a long-shot brought much-needed excitement to Hughie’s dull existence, it becomes painfully clear that Hughie was the less deceived. The only real ‘sap’ is Erie, who falls for his own lies, the lies he tells to get through the cold, wee hours when the silence comes.

Mark Ritchie’s lighting design perfectly evokes these haunted, faded hours between midnight and five. Andy Arnold’s direction is deft but the production was hindered by the static positioning of the actors. Young rarely moves from the fixed point at the clerk's reception desk, and this lack of dynamism makes the play seem much slower than its 50 minute duration.

There’s a beautiful moment at the play’s close when the characters freeze and the stage is lit by a single blue light emanating from the desk. Suddenly we’re reminded of any number of images from the paintings of Edward Hopper, the artist who, like O'Neill, was fascinated with figures who dwell in the dark corners of society and share secrets and lies in midnight America.

Whilst The Black Box plays host to a production of David Mamet’s The Blue Hour on May 10-11, fans of Mamet should look to the Old Museum Art Centre where they can find a perfect companion piece in Eugene O‘Neill‘s Hughie. Here is the Nobel Prize winning playwright who changed the face of American theatre and whose affection for life’s beautiful freaks and forgotten losers inspired not only Mamet but a whole generation of writers.

The Arches Theatre Company’s production of Hughie runs from Thurs May 10 - Sat 12 in the Old Museum Arts Centre