Shakespeare Theater Company HughieBy Bob Ashby • Feb 13th, 2013 • Category: Reviews
Shakespeare Theater Company: (Info) (Web)
Lansburgh Theatre, Washington DC
Through March 17th
$80-$100 (Plus Fees) (Special prices available online)
Reviewed February 10th, 2013
It’s fair to think of Eugene O’Neill’s one-act play Hughie as portraying the dark side of Damon Runyon’s New York, the world of gamblers and dolls and outlandish Broadway characters Frank Loesser later made delightful in Guys and Dolls. Set in 1928 – the year before the Great Depression — in the lobby of a third-rate hotel, Hughie looks unflinchingly at the utter loneliness of Erie Smith (Richard Schiff) as he tries to establish a degree of human contact with the only available person, the hotel’s night clerk (Randall Newsome).
The former night clerk, Hughie, has recently died. In long monologues, Erie spins the tall tales he told Hughie about his luck and prowess with the ponies, dice, and blondes. The stories are exaggerations and lies, but to Hughie – a married man with two kids, a bleak apartment in Brooklyn, and a humdrum life – they provide a touch of color in an otherwise monochrome life. Hughie’s willingness to listen to the stories, beyond giving Erie companionship otherwise lacking in his life, lets Erie believe, at least fleetingly, that he is or could be the person his stories depict. Now that Hughie has died, Erie feels his luck has run out.
Schiff’s performance is a clinic in how an actor can give a character profound emotional and dramatic force without ever resorting to histrionics. Schiff’s characterization is long on quiet, understated storytelling, with exquisite use of silences and only occasional crescendos that then quickly subside. He walks slowly and rises wearily from chairs, his body showing Erie’s spiritual as well as physical exhaustion.
An intriguing feature of the production is director Doug Hughes’ decision to have an offstage voice read excerpts from O’Neill’s stage directions at several points during the play. These stage directions are not the common “exit stage left” sort. Rather, they are detailed descriptions of the characters’ thoughts and states of mind, somewhat similar to the “asides” in Strange Interlude. The stage directions are particularly important in creating the interior world of the night clerk. Newsome delivers his relatively few lines with the studied indifference that the stage directions describe as the clerk’s common defense against garrulous guests, and his physicality through most of the show is equally unwelcoming to Erie’s attempts at drawing him into conversation. His voice and body then make a marked transition at the end of the show when the clerk becomes excited at Erie’s stories of association with a local celebrity gangster.
David Van Tieghem creates an urban soundscape – an El train, garbage can lids, ambulance siren, etc. – closely keyed to specific points in the script. The set (designed by Neil Patel) is a very detailed, naturalistic rendition of a down-at-the-heels hotel lobby, except that a picture on the wall, a door, a mirror, and several dirty windows transform on occasion into screens showing Darrel Maloney’s black-and-white video images of Erie or things in his imagination. Sometimes having a surrealistic look, the images underline Erie’s interior life without drawing focus from the acting. The hotel clock tells the slow passage of time from 3-4 a.m. In “My Time of Day” from Guys and Dolls, Loesser writes of his (and Sky Masterson’s) love for this the beauty of this dark time; in Hughie, it is the time of dead souls.
Besides mounting excellent productions like this one, something that the Shakespeare Theatre Company does extraordinarily well is to provide dramaturgical information in its Asides publication. The issue concerning Hughie includes an interview with Schiff and Hughes, a map of O’Neill’s New York, background on gangster Arnold Rothstein (who is frequently mentioned in the script), a piece on the influence of a hotel setting on stage storytelling, and articles discussing the history of the play and O’Neill’s stage directions. Some, but not all, of this material is online at Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Asides Online.
Photos by Carol Rosegg
- Night Clerk: Randall Newsome
- “Erie” Smith: Richard Schiff
- Understudy: Steve Brady
Direction And Design
- Director: Doug Hughes
- Set Designer: Neil Patel
- Costume Designer: Catherine Zuber
- Lighting Designer: Ben Stanton
- Composer/Sound Designer: David Van Tieghem
- Projection Designer: Darrel Maloney
- Wig Designer: Tom Watson
- Jay Binder, CSA/Jack Bowdan, CSA Casting: Binder Casting
- Resident Casting Director: Daniel Neville-Rehbehn
- Literary Associate: Drew Lichtenberg
- Assistant Director: Hunter Bird
- Production Stage Manager: James FitzSimmons
- Assistant Stage Manager: Hannah R. O’Neil
Disclaimer: Shakespeare Theater Company provided two complimentary media tickets to ShowBizRadio for this review.
This article can be linked to as: http://washingtondc.showbizradio.com/goto/9138.
Bob Ashby has been an active participant in the Washington-area community theater scene since his arrival in town in 1975.