Erie Smith is a guy who dreams of a high class dame on his arm and a pocketful of cash. He also wants someone willing to listen to his tales of a Broadway sport back in the waning days of Prohibition. Erie is really just small-time gambler and errand boy who bets on horses and fights a losing battle with demon alcohol. But dreams are hard to come by when Erie returns from drunken spree looking for a room in his home away from home - a third rate hotel which saw better days before World War I.
Erie Smith and his broken dreams are front and center in Eugene O'Neill's densely packed one-act play Hughie, now onstage at the Lansburgh Theatre through March 17. As produced by the Shakespeare Theatre Company Hughie is admirable and well-acted. The production comes with a high pedigree and has many factors to recommend it.
The 55-minute drama is directed by the Tony Award-winning Doug Hughes, honored for Doubt, returning to STC since his production of The Little Foxes with Elizabeth Ashley (2002). As the featured performer, Hughie boasts the Emmy Award-winning actor Richard Schiff ("West Wing") as Erie.
The physical production is handsomely executed, with scenic design by Neil Patel and lighting by Ben Stanton. The look and feel of a seedy midtown New York hotel, circa 1928, is replicated with style and detail down to the peeling and stained walls, dusty counter and faded marble flooring. Catherine Zuber's costume designs for Erie and the night clerk also reflect the usual high standards of the Shakespeare Theatre Company.
Hughie is the work of Eugene O'Neill, America's only Nobel Prize-winning playwright. O'Neill presents the audience with two phenomenal characters who struggle to make a connection in the dead of night. Erie is a little guy who talks big to anyone who will listen. When a person like Erie doesn't have someone to regale with his stories, his purpose fades like his luck at gambling. Working as a night clerk, Charlie Hughes has seen his share of chatty drunks and Mr. Smith in room 492 is no different. He just wants the old sot to go to bed. On the other hand, Erie has to win over the new night clerk namEd Hughes and that is a bigger challenge to him than putting down his bottle of gin.
Unlike the lengthy masterpieces The Iceman Cometh and Long Day's Journey into Night, Hughie is boiled down to the essentials: two characters and a single act. They speak in the rich and colorful language, taken from the argot of Broadway denizens from the roaring 20s or gangland 30s.
Sharing the stage for the 55-minute running time, Randall Newsome and Richard Schiff display a ready contrast and distinct personalities. Newsome is a towering cipher, to Schiff's stooped and besotted raconteur.
As the night clerk, Randall Newsome adroitly handles the challenging role of a man of few words, fading attention span and exhausted state. At times, he smiles a Homer Lisa smile that fools Erie and amuses the audience. He might not have the lion's share of the dialogue, but his performance speaks volumes.
Richard Schiff convincingly brings to life the loose-lipped Erie, with the everyman appearance that fits the slouching fedora and worn-out wingtips of a nearly broken man. With his hangdog look, Schiff brought to mind great character actors from old Hollywood movies - Brian Donlevy or J. Carrol Naish. There were times, however, when his understated performance got swallowed up by the play.