Shakespeare Theatre Company presents 'Hughie,' lonely ode to a New York night clerk

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Entertainment,Music,Barbara Mackay

Last year the Shakespeare Theatre Company gave the District one of Eugene O'Neill's better-known longer works, "Strange Interlude." This season, it is offering one of O'Neill's shorter, less well-known plays: "Hughie." Written in 1941, "Hughie" tells the story of gambler Erie Smith (Richard Schiff), a man trapped in his illusions.

The play takes place in the summer of 1928 in the lobby of a seedy West Side hotel in midtown Manhattan, where Erie talks nonstop to the hotel's new night clerk, Charlie Hughes (Randall Newsome).

Erie primarily talks about Charlie's predecessor, a man named Hughie, who has died the week before. Erie had an oddly close relationship with Hughie and he thinks his luck depended on him. As Erie puts it, he hasn't had a winner at the racetrack since Hughie went to the hospital.

Onstage
'Hughie'
Where: Shakespeare Theatre Company, Lansburgh Theatre, 450 7th St. NW
When: Through March 17
Info: $43 to $100; 202-547-1122; shakespearetheatre.org

It becomes clear that Erie's vision of reality may be less than reliable. He's just ended a five-day drinking binge triggered by Hughie's funeral. As Erie talks, he displays various emotions. He's angry, aggressive, boastful. He's insecure and arrogant. He's full of self-reproach and braggadocio.

Schiff is superb as Erie, seeping with maudlin self-pity while making the past sound like a nirvana where his horses never lost a race and he won every game of craps. Yet as Erie proceeds to unburden his soul, he at least is aware that there is little to reveal: He's a fraud, a man who agrees to go to Hughie's house for dinner, then immediately regrets having to put up with Hughie's wife and children, then afterward admits it wasn't so bad.

In short, he gives the event a passing grade, but simultaneously belittles it, illustrating the essence of Erie. He is the ultimate lonely person, a man without love who can only deal with life by criticizing it. Schiff catches the perfect tone of the man for whom nothing is good enough. Only Hughie, with his ready ear, his willingness to believe Erie's exaggerated stories, has ever been sufficient.

Newsome, his face displaying no emotion, is an excellent foil for Erie.

Neil Patel's set is an appropriately down-at-the-heels hotel lobby, with dirty windows and lackluster tan walls. Panels show occasional sepia-tone film clips of Erie or a horse race or the streets of New York.

Catherine Zuber has dressed Erie in an outfit of tan pants, vanilla-colored vest and light jacket. David Van Tieghem's sound design includes marvelous New York noises: garbage cans, ambulances, elevated trains.

Director Doug Hughes has added voice-over stage directions, allowing the audience to hear how bored the desk clerk is. They add a welcome note of humor to a classic O'Neill gem about extreme loneliness.

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Barbara Mackay

Special to The Washington Examiner
The Washington Examiner