Shakespeare Theatre Company has a quiet hit with Eugene O’Neill’s one-act Hughie. It is a deceptively simple production about an old guy, Erie Smith (Richard Schiff) who returns to his Broadway hotel at 3 AM and meets the new night clerk (Randall Newsome). The old night clerk, Hughie, may well have been the only friend he ever had and over the course of an hour played out in real time, he reminisces about the late Hughie, as well as death in general, life, and a life wasted. In their own ways, both characters seem hopelessly stuck – one in the life of a gambler and one as a career night clerk with three kids – but unlike most O’Neill’s plays that leave you with your guts ripped out, there is a fine note of optimism in this early morning meeting, which is perhaps why it has proved so enduring, particularly to actors who want to tackle the iconic Erie Smith.
The show belongs to Richard Schiff. For all intents and purposes, this one-act is a monologue. Erie Smith talks and the night clerk listens. Keeping the audience engaged for 55 minutes is no mean feat. Schiff is a very detailed actor – building character in the gestures, in the flawless New York accent, in the way he takes off his coat and puts it on and lights a cigarette. Smith is not a likable character, certainly not all that sympathetic, but Schiff is patient in his portrayal as he draws you into the character’s world and the strange dignity of this washed-up gambler.
This production came out of Schiff’s desire to tackle the role. He worked with Shakespeare Theatre Company before on their annual benefit “Will on The Hill” and spoke to company Managing Director Chris Jennings about his fascination with Erie Smith. We are all lucky he did.
Randall Newsome has a difficult job too as the night clerk. He is almost entirely silent, but his life is equally important to the play as a contrast to Smith’s choices and for much of the humor. O’Neill wrote long, poetic stage directions about the state of his mind as he smiles that empty smile of hotel clerks the world over or listens to garbage men outside the hotel and wishes Smith would go to bed. O’Neill left it up to directors how they would paint this internal world for the audience and the director, Tony Award winner Doug Hughes has chosen a 360 degree experience with video screens, lighting, and an actor reading out the stage directions over the PA. For all of that, the effect is remarkably subtle and effective. Some of the funniest moments of the play come in the interactions between the stage directions and Newsome’s response as he struggles to stay awake and even conscious in the face of Smith’s rambling.
The screens are hidden on a beautiful set by Neil Patel as hotel lobby paintings, windows and even the key slots so they are unnoticeable except as they light up with black and white images of the two actors as well as other metaphors for Newsome’s state of mind. Lighting Designer Ben Stanton assists by lighting the stage mostly through old chandeliers and then changes the mood entirely when the interior monologues begin. David Van Tieghem composed the background music as well as designing the sound. It is an instrumental part of these interludes in Smith’s monologues, because whenever the night clerk tuned out, he tuned into the sounds of New York, which Van Tieghem conjured up well.
Beyond the video screens, Patel’s set is very detailed. It is much more difficult to get a set looking tired and worn than it is to build something brand new – and for this hotel that has seen better days, it works. From the water-damaged cracks in the ceiling to the extra grime built up around the public telephone, the “third class sheik” as O’Neill called it – is pitch perfect but the old marble panels and huge pictures lend the elegance of past grandeur.
Costume Designer Catherine Zuber puts Schiff in a rumpled white suit that doesn’t quite fit. It became an important piece of the character, especially his old hat. The night clerk wears an an ill-fitting, stiff grey suit that just looks uncomfortable.
Hughie grows on you slowly. On the surface, it’s essentially an hour of small talk, but O’Neill builds up two entire lives in the course of the hour they have together. Exploiting moments of humor and despair – we get to peek into the mind of one silent character and gain a little bit of hope from the life Erie Smith calls,”a damned racket.”
Hughie is a unique and fascinating experience from one of American theater’s greatest playwrights and one of our greatest actors.