Richard Schiff, the star of Eugene O’Neill’s Hughie at Shakespeare Theatre Company, first got to know DC during his time on “The West Wing” (1999-2006), for which he won an Emmy playing White House communications director Toby Ziegler. He’s happy to be back. “It’s a real nice town. And the theatre world here has grown quite a bit in the last few years.” Schiff will be part of that theatre world through March 17th.
One of O’Neill’s later plays, Hughie treads some of the same territory as The Iceman Cometh, but instead of a sprawling drama with an epic cast, Hughie is a two-character one act.
Schiff plays small time gambler and big time loser Erie Smith. After a drunken bender, he stumbles into a rundown hotel lobby in the early morning hours to shoot the breeze with Hughie, his favorite night clerk. When Erie discovers the old clerk is dead and a new clerk is minding the counter, he must face more than the loss of Hughie.
Erie is one of those “run of the mill schmoes, the kind of guys you wouldn’t notice walking down the street,” Schiff told me. “But these are the guys Eugene O’Neill, and Arthur Miller and David Mamet put into these great American dramas.”
Speaking of Mamet, Schiff just finished the Broadway run of the starry revival of Glengarry Glen Ross, another play about small time men with big dreams. Schiff’s costars were John C. McGinley, Bobby Cannavale, Jeremy Shamos and headliner Al Pacino.
Schiff said doing Mamet was a great warm-up to performing O’Neill, since they both write with their own almost musical style and the vernacular of the streets. “Hughie is poetic and it has a certain rhythm to it. Where Mamet is like modern jazz, O’Neill is early 20s jazz with a Damon Runyon vocabulary.”
Tragic common men and their poetic language helped draw Schiff into taking theatre work. “That’s why I thought I would cleanse my soul and do these plays by these great American writers.”
The founding father of modern American drama, according to Schiff, is clearly Eugene O’Neill. The desire to play one of O’Neill’s everyman characters is what drew the actor to Hughie when he read the play 25 years ago. “I was immediately taken by it. I’ve always been fascinated with man’s ability to delude one’s self. Within those delusions, revelations are quite powerful when we do wake up.”
Erie Smith is one such character. “Here is this man, in this valiant, heroic effort to make a connection with this new night clerk. His self delusions, his pipe dreams and his need for connection is so powerful and so desperate.”
Schiff jumped at the chance to perform in Hughie at STC. Doug Hughes, a veteran of regional theatre and Broadway, came onboard as his director. A Tony Award winner for directing Doubt, Hughes returns to the Lansburgh where he directed Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes (starring Elizabeth Ashley) in 2002. “I am happy to be working with Doug who I have always admired,” offered the actor. “Doug and I had always talked about working together. They called him and luckily he was available.”
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In looking closely at Hughie’s lowlife characters, Schiff was reminded of the figures captured by one of the world’s greatest painters. “I look at it like it’s a Rembrandt, that kind of portraiture,” he said referring to Holland’s great painter of the Baroque era (1606 – 1669).
“Rembrandt was painting people on the street or from cafés who were down and out. His paintings always popped out at me, because he noticed people that no one else noticed. Those people now live on forever in these little paintings.”
If O’Neill is like Rembrandt, Erie Smith is one of his portraits. “In that way, Erie lives on as someone who otherwise would have had a life that came and went without much notice.”