One of the stars of Eugene O’Neill’s play "Hughie" is the backdrop of a fleabag New York 1920s hotel. Its gray wallpaper is fading and mildewed. The furniture is covered in a layer of dust. It seems all but empty, except for a few crooks and drunks, who use it as a halfway house of sorts, for a life halfway from jail, but not completely free.
But the hotel also is a repository of stories of loss, and to emphasize this point, "Shakespeare Theatre Company’s" presentation includes multiple projection screens that show shadowy images of the characters’ memories in black and white. The hotel as evoked by set designer Neil Patel in many ways serves as a mirror to the hearts and minds of its few sad sack occupants.
The other star of the one-act-play, which is one of the last works of Eugene O’Neill, is "Erie" Smith (Richard Schiff), a drunken, down-on-his-luck gambler who is a resident. Back from a drunken bender, he shares his stories of dice, horse races and prostitutes in a lengthy monologue, punctuated by brief utterances of the front desk clerk.
Schiff, who portrayed passionate and rebellious Communications Director Toby Ziegler on "The West Wing," also took part in the STC’s "Will on the Hill" benefit last spring. More recently, he performed a three-month stint on Broadway with Al Pacino in a revival of David Mamet’s "Glengarry Glen Ross."
He is mostly believable as Erie, though there is something a little too sharp, a little too sober about his delivery to make the character’s wayward tales seem not quite plausible.
The play’s surprisingly soft core is the relationship between Erie and the recently deceased front desk clerk "Hughie," which he recounts to the largely oblivious new clerk, who shares the last name Hughes with his predecessor.
While Erie’s stories are one-note in their hopelessness, the only light in his life, apparently, was that the former front desk clerk seemed to take pleasure and excitement in hearing about his escapades. Their friendship seemed to be the only thing Erie had, and now that his former crony has passed, he is truly in desperate straits, with a run of bad luck that leaves him seriously in debt.
Director Doug Hughes makes it clear that this is Schiff’s play, with the deadpanning desk clerk (Randall Newsome) particularly unemotional and only a sarcastic narrator, reading the desk clerk’s thoughts, providing comic relief. The play could almost be a one-man show, with just Schiff speaking, as there is little else to the story than Erie’s tale.
But at the end of the day, that may not be enough. The audience is left hungry for more emotional range from Erie, higher highs and lower lows, a story with more shameful secrets to tell and mysteries to uncover.
The haunting hotel backdrop seems to promise more layers of emotion hiding in its nooks and crannies, but Erie’s story, told in alternately ranting and sulking style, doesn’t quite provide a proper foil to the hotel’s dark secrets.
"Hughie" runs through March 17 at the Lansburgh Theatre, 450 F St. NW. For info or tickets, call 202-547-1122 or visit shakespearetheatre.org.