Eugene O’Neill’s 55-minute meditation on modernity and loneliness, Hughie, is the kind of brief work that could quite easily be seen, pondered, and then quickly forgotten. But in the hands of director Doug Hughes and stars Richard Schiff and Randall Newsome, the production currently playing at Shakespeare Theatre Company is a testament to the indefinable power of theatricality, from the subtle, absorbing performances of the two actors to the tricks Hughes uses to engage O’Neill’s 1920s drama with contemporary America.
Not much happens onstage as small-time hustler Erie (Schiff) and a catatonically vacant night clerk (Newsome) interact in the lobby of a “third-class dump” of a hotel in 1928, just a few years before the Great Depression—but as with Vladimir and Estragon or Hamm and Clov, what’s left unsaid is frequently the most fascinating thing of all. The sprawling hotel re-created by designer Neil Patel on the stage of Shakespeare’s Lansburgh Theatre is painstakingly realistic, from the nonfunctioning light bulbs hanging overhead to the patches of mold above the peeling wallpaper.
Given that the whole play hangs on the conversation between the drunken, clearly depressed Erie and the bored but polite clerk, the sense that it could end at any minute gives the show an uneasy element of tension. Erie, returning from a three-day bender, seeks a sounding board as companionable as his old friend Hughie, the former hotel night clerk, now dead. The current clerk, focused only on getting through the night via a meticulously crafted set of time markers (the sound of the L train, listening to the fire trucks outside) has perfected the art of looking like he’s listening while existing in the sort of stupefied reverie that leads Erie to conclude more than once that he’s high.
Hughes plays on the more surreal, dreamlike elements of the play, bringing in an unseen narrator who reads stage directions in godlike tones. The voiceovers offer hints about the seemingly inscrutable night clerk—he might feel despair at Erie’s nonstop badgering, but he hasn’t encountered that particular feeling since he was out of a job for three months straight. The dingy oil paintings hanging on the walls and the dirty windows also transform unexpectedly into video screens revealing projected fragments of Erie’s life, from faces to the oversize, overpriced floral arrangement he ordered for Hughie’s funeral (the projection designer is Darrel Maloney). Seen in a post-millennium era, they seem to hint at the potential technology offers for even more isolation from humanity.
These HD moments might feel odd in a decidedly period drama, but accompanied by single notes of sound, they enhance Hughie’s sense of desolation. Nevertheless, Schiff’s performance as Erie is delightfully funny at times, from his limping swagger of a walk to his constantly fiddling, shuffling physicality. Newsome is fascinating to watch at the night clerk—he smiles blankly at Erie for the first half of the show before lapsing into an open-mouthed fugue state whenever he thinks he’s been left alone. (“Don’t ever buy from a dope peddler,” the sharp-eyed Erie snaps at him. “He’ll tell you you’ve had enough already.”)
The costumes, by Catherine Zuber, offer more hints about the characters—Erie is natty but obviously a shadow of his former glory in a stained though gorgeously made beige three-piece suit and fedora, complete with paisley tie. When he takes off his jacket, the cuffs of his shirt and his vest seem dingy and unclean, much like the wallpaper that surrounds him in the tatty lobby. Schiff, best known for his role as Toby on The West Wing, delivers the kind of intense performance that leaves you pondering the character for days, from his painfully apparent loneliness and dubious life as a two-bit gambler to his relationship with the world outside the hotel. The clerk, meanwhile, could seem two-dimensional if it weren’t for his briefly expressed fascination with burning buildings and Newsome’s mesmerizing stage presence.
Schiff, taking his bow, looked exhausted at the press performance Sunday night, as if just under an hour of embodying Erie was more than enough for him. Luckily for the audience, this compact but absorbing production is equally fulfilling.
Hughie is at Shakespeare Theatre’s Lansburgh Theatre through March 17. Running time is about 55 minutes, with no intermission. Tickets ($43 to $100) are available via Shakespeare’s website.