Brian Dennehy, Cynthia Strickland, Ginger Eckert, and Joe Grifasiin A Pound on Demand(Photo © T. Charles Erickson)
Brian Dennehy, Cynthia Strickland, Ginger Eckert, and Joe Grifasi
in A Pound on Demand
(Photo © T. Charles Erickson)
It's a bit of a tease, and ultimately a bad idea, for Trinity Rep to preface Eugene O'Neill's masterful character study Hughie with a broad skit by Sean O'Casey. As an amuse-bouche, A Pound on Demand is not very amusing. It suffers from Harvey syndrome; i.e., stumblebum drunks ceased being uproarious a good half-century ago. The audience has come to see Brian Dennehy tackle the monumental role of Erie Smith in Hughie. (The actor's last O'Neill outing, the 2003 Broadway production of Long Day's Journey into Night, earned him a Tony Award.) A Pound on Demand , appended as filler at Dennehy's suggestion, just delays the proceedings by a tedious half-hour.

Director Catherine Baker Steindler allows her Pound company a near-vaudevillian latitude. Every action here is writ large. Dennehy's portrayal of Sammy, a lumbering sot, displays no perceptible genius. It's up to his comparatively sober sidekick Jerry (Joe Grifasi) to keep the show moving along; after all, it was Jerry's idea to cash in Sammy's one-pound Post Office savings account and it's in his interest to keep Sammy sufficiently compos mentis so that his signature can ensure their solvency. Grifasi lends the role an endearing, antic caginess suggestive of an Everyman up against impossible odds.

Secondary players Ginger Eckert (as a prissy young postmistress) and Cynthia Strickland (as a fussbudget patron) have evidently been given free rein to ham it up; high school thespians can generally be counted on to display more subtlety. Following Grifasi's lead, Trinity Rep regular William Damkoehler helps to anchor the play with the kind of realism that O'Casey's work requires. Eugene Lee's P.O. set also deserves credit for verisimilitude, right down to the crumbling floor tiles and battered wainscotting.

During the intermission, in an inspired instance of presto-chango, the set's centerpiece turns into the front desk of a seedy hotel and a New York cityscape circa 1928 is revealed stage left. The El girders overhead (complete with resident stuffed pigeons), which didn't make much sense for Ireland, come to life with realistic audio screeches (Richard Woodbury designed the sound); they even wobble as the train rumbles by. Into this scene, with an exasperated sigh, trudges Erie Smith (Dennehy), a down-on-his-luck petty gambler fresh from a bender.

It's Dennehy's blessing -- or perhaps curse, in this context -- that he's one of those actors who exude an aura of well-being. Sure, Smith looks a bit worse for wear; the frayed, sweat-stained seersucker suit that costumer William Lane provides is perfect. Still, he's presentable. In fact, a threadbare but enduring dapperness seems to be all that's left of the big-shot dreams that drew him to the city.

Joe Grifasi and Brian Dennehy in Hughie(Photo © T. Charles Erickson)
Joe Grifasi and Brian Dennehy in Hughie
(Photo © T. Charles Erickson)
Perhaps its unfair to fault Dennehy for his hale and hearty demeanor; not everyone can boast Jason Robards's harrowed, all-nighter eye sockets, to invoke another giant in the role. Still, Dennehy appears to have made a conscious choice to approach Smith's plight dispassionately; he avoids the temptation to play up the character's pathos. It's only toward the end, when he turns on the nebbishy night clerk (Grifasi again, brilliantly retiring), that we see the mean drunk lurking beneath the would-be mover and shaker.

Smith's patter makes him sound like an old self-help tape set on permanent rewind: "I get along fine...I never been a guy to worry...I was born lucky..." Of course, his pretensions are as transparent as his supposed contempt for the previous clerk, Hughie, whom he dismisses as a "sap." What's all the reminiscing for? Smith has resurfaced not to praise Hughie but to reel in a replacement, and Dennehy dishes out anecdotes as if mentally dealing cards. His drive to establish a connection at all costs isn't exactly cuddly -- not that the clerk doesn't have designs of his own. (Grifasi ratchets into an 11th-hour assertiveness.)

It's a fascinating take on the role that yields little in the way of warm and fuzzy humanism but prompts the intriguing question, "What can we reasonably hope for from others and what should we be expected to offer in exchange?" During the course of the run, maybe Dennehy will let more defeat show through; he has played Willy Loman, after all, and Providence is a far-from-cheery place this time of year. Meanwhile, Trinity Rep's Hughie offers a rare opportunity to see two highly skilled actors in a richly layered encounter.