March 31, 2015 SIGN IN | REGISTER
Roll Call

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.

Schiff said hes known Pacino for 20 years, after meeting him during a read-through for the Glengarry movie, which starred Pacino in the Ricky Roma role. Since then, Schiff has co-starred in two movies with Pacino, one of which, the political thriller City Hall, Schiff describes as almost great.

Playing New York, Rehearsing D.C.

Every day before he delivered Mamets 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. Its very hard very hard.

It did have advantages.

The great thing about going from ONeill 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. Schiffs Erie is a down-and-out, two-bit gambler the Jazz Age forgot, who tries to draw out the hotels 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 Millers] Death of a Salesman ... then you extract it and push it forward in years, you got Glengarry. Its a direct lineage. And the language of Mamet is a modern day, not exactly street, but the street vernacular of very tough guys.

And thats what ONeill wrote in his day. Not [in Long Days 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 [Mamets] 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 years presidential election.

This was Romneys 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 countrys 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. Dont 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 wasnt the case. And Erie was one of them, he said. But, how it relates to today: I just think its more of the personal thing. That feeling of being disconnected.

Hughie runs through March 17 at the Shakespeare Theatre Companys Lansburgh Theatre, 450 Seventh St. NW.

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