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 Company’s Lansburgh Theatre, Schiff plays a man remembering his only friend.
Every day before he delivered Mamet’s dialogue to a packed house at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre in New York, Schiff spent five daytime hours rehearsing “Hughie” with the director, Doug Hughes.
“It was a big deal,” he said of the grueling schedule. “It’s very hard — very hard.”
It did have advantages.
“The great thing about going from O’Neill during the day to Mamet at night, with a three-hour cross fade, is that you can recognize the lineage,” he said.
“Hughie” runs about one hour and is staged in the lobby of a fleabag hotel near Times Square. Schiff’s Erie is a down-and-out, two-bit gambler the Jazz Age forgot, who tries to draw out the hotel’s new night clerk, Charlie, played by Randall Newsome. He does this rather pathetically by eulogizing his only friend, the former night clerk, Hughie, who is now deceased.
“I even talked to Mamet about it,” Schiff said. “If you take the scene in [Arthur Miller’s] ‘Death of a Salesman’ ... then you extract it and push it forward in years, you got ‘Glengarry.’ It’s a direct lineage. And the language of Mamet is a modern day, not exactly street, but the street vernacular of very tough guys.
“And that’s what O’Neill wrote in his day. Not [in ‘Long Day’s Journey Into Night’], but it is ‘Iceman Cometh,’ for sure, and it is ‘Hughie,’” he continued.
“That was cool,” Schiff said. “To trace a direct line from the father of American modern drama, to the son, to the grandson.”
Erie Vs. Glengarry
“My guess is [‘Glengarry Glenn Ross’] was [Mamet’s] reaction to the Reagan years and Reaganomics when deregulation created this free for all,” Schiff said. “You know, in Glengarry they are selling nothing. They are selling valueless plans. This was written in ’83. We then went on a 20-year binge, learning how to make a fortune out of nothing, derivatives, mortgages and so on.”
He switches gears quickly to target former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the man who lost last year’s presidential election.
“This was Romney’s brilliant career of raiding companies, downsizing companies and watching them bankrupt. He made his fortune that way. So, ‘Glengarry,’ to me, is very poignant.”
Where “Glengarry” reflects back on the country’s economic troubles, Schiff said, “Hughie” is a show about human connection and how disconnection from people is as dangerous to the psyche as disease, poverty and violence.
“This is a very personal story,” he said. “Don’t forget it was written in 1941, but [it is set in] 1928, before the [1929 stock market] crash.
“There was this great movement, this urbanization of America, this industrialization and people thought that the city was ... a land of treasure and a lot of people found out this wasn’t the case. And Erie was one of them,” he said. “But, how it relates to today: I just think it’s more of the personal thing. That feeling of being disconnected.”
“Hughie” runs through March 17 at the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Lansburgh Theatre, 450 Seventh St. NW.
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