Some actors push their virtuosic energy boldly across the proverbial footlights, as if demanding audience members to listen, all but grabbing them by the throats. Then there are others who hold their energy close in, necessitating any audience member who wishes to understand to draw close and pay very focused attention.
Richard Schiff is an actor of the latter camp. His performance in Hughie at the Shakespeare Theatre Company is a marvel of a study in classic American character acting.
Schiff’s portrayal of the small-time gambler will seem familiar to many even if you do not know Eugene O’Neill’s play. Schiff seems to access all his characters just under his skin, so there is a “branding” one feels when watching one of his performances, as I did recently on Broadway where I caught his work, in Glengarry Glen Ross.
Many of us lived with this actor in our living rooms for several seasons when, as Toby Ziegler, he and his team in the series West Wing convinced us that if they could just take over the oval office for real then America would recover its moral stature. My son grew up wanting to be Toby Ziegler, speechwriter to the president.
There is something deliciously satisfying about the way this actor communicates with gestures and his body every nuanced thought and emotion. His fingers rub and dig into the flesh of his forehead as the man gropes mentally for some new understanding. His teeth gnaw on the inside of his cheek in worry. His knees jerk when he’s coiled in anger or flap like windshield wipers when he’s restless.
In this play, Schiff uses all of this physical vocabulary to convey a portrait of a man struggling out of an alcoholic binge, who tries to come to terms with the loss of someone he discovered too late he had loved as a friend.
Eugene O’Neill wrote this one act around the same time he was working on his masterpiece Long Day’s Journey’s into Night. In Hughie, O’Neill used the smallest of canvases and only two characters on stage to depict a con artist and a hotel clerk who, in the shabbiest of hotel lobbies late one night, find themselves thrown together. The one, “Erie” Smith, is at the end of his rope and he begins to come apart at the seams as he spills his guts out to the Night Clerk.
The set and lighting, by Neil Patel and Ben Stanton, capture the ethos of a small hotel in mid-Manhattan during the 1920’s. There are minimalist touches, including a counter and behind it a wooden wall of key cubbies. Off to each side are anterooms, with furniture where no one sits and passages that lead, one assumes, to more corridors.
The Landsburgh Theatre stage has been flattened, and the paint on the set is so faded that the colors of the non-descript hotel lobby melt with the surrounding house into one long beige corridor. Anyone who has lived traveling from hotel room to hotel room on business will immediately recognize the atmosphere of Nowheresville. The one updated touch are the prints on the walls on each side of the stage that dissolve and, like Marley’s ghost, get replaced by video images, including Smith’s own face, from time to time. In this no man’s land, people become unmoored.
Everything about this show falls into this eerily subdued palette. When Schiff first enters in his beige, brimmed hat and his baggy summer suit, the cloth of the suit seems to flap around him, as if the suit doesn’t fit him. He’s literally drowning in something bigger than he can fill. With this one costume design, Catherine Zuber nailed the character.
As the Night Clerk, Randall Newsome plays well in counterpart with the hotel guest “Erie” Smith, whom he often refers to by his room number, “Number 492.” While Schiff as Smith squirms, his eyes darting here and there in agitation, Newsome stares, eyes wide open, with a smile of servitude plastered on his face and his hands folded modestly just below his naval or frozen on the counter at his station.
In this minimalist portrait and with almost no lines, Newsome is able to convey many comic moments (think Buster Keaton) and, at times, as when he moves out from behind his desk, a looming and ominous presence.
It is through a third character, one who never appears on stage but whose name features as the title of the play, that we come to the heart of the piece.
Hughie had been the Night Clerk, and Smith, traveling through this hotel in between his shady businesses looking for a big win, had found a “constant” in the man. Little by little, Smith had shared stories, elaborating here and there, and passing the time. The almost faceless service provider, the “sad sap” to be pitied and slightly despised, had grown to become, in some ways, the only home and family the drifter Smith had.
Closes March 17, 2013
Produced by Shakespeare Theatre Company
at the Lansburgh Theatre
450 7th Street NW
55 minutes without intermission
Tickets: $55 – $100
Tuesdays thru Sundays
Nobody has portrayed brokenness of character so well as O’Neill. The playwright knew how a hotel could expose man’s true emotional and moral nakedness. O’Neill was born in a hotel and then, as if creating a perfect theatrical arc in his own life, died in one, succumbing to the character flaws and ghosts that swept through his family like some kind of Greek tragedy. Loneliness, alcoholism, loss, and regrets were no strangers to him.
Director Doug Hughes has mined this fifty-minute play and faceted a true gem of a show. With actors Richard Schiff and Randall Newsome, the play’s truths shine through in an unflinching portrayal of our illusions and deepest longings.
Hughie by Eugene O’Neill . Directed by Doug Hughes . Featuring Richard Schiff and Randall Newsome . Production team: Set Designer: Neil Patel, Costume Designer: Catherine Zuber, Lighting Designer: Ben Stanton, Composer and Sound Designer David Van Tieghem. Assistant Director: Hunter Bird. Production Stage Manager James FitzSimmons,Assistant Stage Manager Hannah O’Neill. Produced by Shakespeare Theatre Company . Reviewed by Susan Galbraith.