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Schiff's New Role Connects Him to the District

It was a big deal. Its very hard very hard.

Courtesy Carol Rosegg
Schiff is probably best known, at least in the D.C. area, for his role on The West Wing as the grumpy but endearing White House communications director. In Hughie, on stage now at the Shakespeare Theatre Companys Lansburgh Theatre, Schiff plays a man remembering his only friend.

Richard Schiff looks happy. At least, for him.

Hes a uniquely Washington celebrity, best known for his role as salty White House Communications Director Toby Ziegler on NBCs The West Wing.

Before that show, Schiff said in a recent interview, he was never into mainstream politics.

But since his West Wing tenure, Schiff has campaigned for Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., been a guest at the White House several times and has been to every subsequent Democratic convention. Hes currently an executive producer for the political Web series Chasing the Hill, which stars several West Wing alums, including himself. Whether he likes it or not, Schiffs stint as Ziegler has tied him to D.C.s world, likely for his career.

The man who played Toby is quiet, grave and guarded. He writes about politics and pens some short fiction. He hasnt trusted The New York Times, he said, since it screwed up a story about a protest he witnessed in high school from soup to nuts. He prefers quiet and solitude. He loves his wife and hosts a reading group in Los Angeles for writers of all stripes.

Today, though, as he settles into his role in the Shakespeare Theatre Companys production of Eugene ONeills Hughie, Schiff is downright pleased, very un-Toby-like.

ONeills Way

That days performance of Hughie went well, he said.

Schiff walks from the backstage door through the lobby of the Shakespeares Lansburgh Theatre, picking his way past the Wednesday matinee crowd.

Wearing a leather fedora with the brim turned up, dark jeans and a zippered sweatshirt under his coat, hes laid-back as he walks out the theater, down the street and around the corner to a marbled space on Pennsylvania Avenue to sit on the lip of a fountain dried up for the winter. Then he lights a cigarette.

He doesnt normally smoke, he said, but his latest role calls for it.

Schiff is in town to play Erie Smith, the loquacious gambler in Hughie. The role, his D.C. debut, comes on the heels of his Broadway debut, where he played George Aaronow opposite Al Pacinos Shelley Levene in the recent revival of David Mamets Glengarry Glen Ross.

Schiff sees both works reflecting the political and cultural fears of the times.

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