Richard Schiff attained immortality playing The West Wing’s Toby Ziegler—the brilliant, impatient White House communications director who paradoxically seemed to want to be left alone. Schiff’s starring role in Shakespeare Theatre Company’s absorbing new revival of Eugene O’Neill’s Hughie could be Toby’s photonegative twin from the Phantom Zone. Erie, the desperately lonely gambler for whom this 36-page playlet is very nearly a monologue, just wants someone to listen to him reminisce about luckier, happier times. “Ain’t that a knockout,” is how he often punctuates his boasts, as though they’re so profound or surprising that just hearing them could shut out your lights.
Erie lives in what O’Neill’s famously specific stage directions (read here by the amplified, offstage voice of Reg Rogers) describe as a seedy Manhattan hotel, a little like the one where the playwright was born in 1888, 30 years before Hughie is set. Designer Neil Patel still makes the place look fairly inviting: marble floors, dark wood paneling, stuffed leather chairs. It’s past three in the morning when Erie stumbles in from a five-day drinking binge, clanking around like Jacob Marley in his soiled white suit, and apparently in no rush to get to bed. A night clerk (Randall Newsome) stands vacant-eyed at his post; his thoughts, unspoken but relayed to us via narration, make him seem only fitfully sentient, except when he owns to a wish to raze the city around him. Yet duty or programming or reflex compel the clerk to feign interest in whatever the occupant of Room 492 is going on about. Increasingly, the topic is Hughie, the clerk’s predecessor in the job, who died only days before. “He didn’t run in my class,” Erie says. “He didn’t know none of the angles. He was just a sucker.” As Erie recalls the night he accepted an invitation to dinner at Hughie’s modest apartment, thinking he was doing the lowly man a favor, black-and-white video projections (by Darrel Maloney) begin to materialize at discrete points on the stage: a woman’s face, and later, Erie’s own.
O’Neill wrote Hughie almost immediately after completing his bleak masterpiece Long Day’s Journey Into Night in 1941; neither would be performed until after his 1953 death. He intended Hughie to be part of a series of one-act, two-character plays with one person talking at length about someone who had recently died; the anthology’s title was to be By Way of Obit. But O’Neill destroyed his drafts of the others. Only Hughie survives.
Jason Robards, Ben Gazzara, Al Pacino, and Brian Dennehy have all played Erie, perhaps finding something romantic in O’Neill’s sensitive portrait of a hyperverbal loser who dismisses all bonds of family as “a racket.” I didn’t see those portrayals, circa 1964-2010. I only know that Schiff’s red-eyed Erie feels definitive. Though the production runs less than an hour, I had time to wonder what bloodshed might’ve been averted if another isolated Manhattan nighthawk, Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle, had just had someone—even just a bored, distracted night-shift hotel clerk—to talk to.