Photo: Carol Rosegg
We could all use a friend like the Night Clerk in Eugene O’Neill’s Hughie. Played by Randall Newsome, the Clerk is a great listener- the kind that doesn’t interrupt your train of thought or dominate a conversation. He is the perfect person for venting, complaining or revealing your inner most secrets.
He’s also the equivalent of talking to a brick wall. The hotel clerk is pretty much checked out for most of the play’s duration. O’Neill could have replaced the character with a dead white guy propped up in a chair ala Weekend at Bernie’s and you wouldn’t notice a difference. The Night Clerk is simply trying to get through his graveyard shift with as little effort as possible. An omniscient narrator who continuously commentates on the state of the Clerk’s wandering attention span is received by the audience with many laughs.
That doesn’t matter for “Erie” Smith though. He’s looking for anybody that will listen to him, even if he’s not really listening to him.
And thus you have the makings of a beautiful relationship in the latest production at the Washington Shakespeare Theatre: a two-man, one-act play that is essentially a one-man monologue and character study.
Richard Schiff steps into the shoes of Erie, a role previous inhabited by Hollywood greats such as Al Pacino and Brian Dennehy, and transforms himself into the strung-out 1920’s gambler who’s without a friend and down on his luck. Those that know him as Toby on the West Wing will encounter a very different person on the stage of Shakespeare’s Lansburgh Theatre than they have seen on the TV screen.
The show takes place in the lobby of a seedy New York hotel. Erie has returned after what seems to be a week long bender and his disheveled look says all you need to know about his current relationship with lady luck. A regular at the hotel, he has fallen into tough times after the death of one of the only people he appears to be close with: the hotel night clerk Hughie. When Erie encounters Hughie’s replacement, he tries to strike up a rapport with him but finds nothing but a vacant stare.
The set designed by Neil Patel is absolutely gorgeous, and traps Erie in its clutches despite his repeated attempts to leave. It’s very similar to the premise of Carnage, “trapped” in a confined space where the characters are left to face their inner most thoughts and fears. For Erie he is forced to come to grips with a loss of a friend, perhaps his only one.
For a man with so little to say, Newsome showed some serious chops in the physicality of the Night Clerk. While most of his expressions resembled what you may have done during seventh grade World History class, he says so much while doing so little. The clerk is only a week into his new job yet looks as if he’s been there for centuries.
The action is well paced but I found myself identifying a little bit with the night clerk during the first half. There are a lot of difficulties to captivate an audience in today’s digital age of short attention spans and honestly it took me a bit to get settled in. Director Doug Hughes makes good use of projections that added a visual element to Erie’s tales. Schiff was in complete command and delivered a touching portrayal of a man who typically held his cards close to the vest, but left himself vulnerable to a complete stranger. As each layer peeled away, we see more and more of the rocked world Hughie is living in. Despite the fact he says, “we weren’t pals,” it is clear that the bonds Erie and Hughie shared were significant. Despite being met with the expressionless face of the Night Clerk, Hughie tries and tries again to find that connection he once had.
Like previous O’Neill works, there is a nostalgic air within the story of Erie Smith. He is a man with nothing left: no money, no family, and now, no friends. All he can do is to look fondly upon happier days. There is some solace after mournfully eulogizing his friend. In doing so he may have realized that sometimes you have to make your own luck.
Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of Hughie performs through March 17th at the Lansburgh Theatre, located at 450 7th Street NW, Washington, DC 20004 . Closest Metro stop: Gallery Place/Chinatown (Red/Yellow/Green lines). For more information call 202-547-1122.