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A splendid ‘Hughie’ at Shakespeare Theatre Company

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There’s this guy shuffling around on the stage of the Lansburgh Theatre — just a guy. Small-time. Beige suit, kind of rumpled. Talks in slang about horse races and crap games. A loser, but with spirit, riffing his way through the night.

The guy is Erie Smith in Eugene O’Neill’s short drama “Hughie,” and in the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s splendid new production Richard Schiff plays this particular down-and-out sport with uncanny understanding. Actors often talk about inhabiting characters; watching Schiff roam set designer Neil Patel’s wide, dingy hotel lobby as he unwinds Erie’s gloomy reveries and frisky patter, you get what they mean.

Even the dense 1920s Broadway lingo of O’Neill’s script comes across like it’s been lived in through more than a thousand lonely nights. Racehorses are “bangtails” or “turtles,” women are “tramps” and “frails,” but Schiff’s easy, understated manner takes the high shine off the bluster. Buffs of TV’s “The West Wing” will get a kick out of watching Schiff, an Emmy winner as the fretful White House communications director, command a full stage in this throwback key.

Yet Schiff’s fine-grained performance — the kind you could settle in and watch again almost as soon as it’s over — also lets you know that it’s all a bit of a sales job. Erie’s got the blues: He sloshes in at three in the morning, glum over the death of the longtime night clerk in this fleabag hotel. That clerk was Hughie, who used to stay up late as a captive but flattering audience for Erie’s tall tales of gambling and womanizing.

The new clerk, though, is a bit of a stiff, and much of the play is about Erie trying to get a rise out of the guy. Randall Newsome, dressed in a dark suit with a high white collar by costume designer Catherine Zuber, is an ideally dull presence as a night clerk who seldom speaks and barely listens. Daydreaming at the reception desk while Erie reels off yet another story, Newsome often looks like one of those isolated, defeated figures whom Edward Hopper painted again and again.

This is where director Doug Hughes rolls the dice a bit. O’Neill, who never saw this play staged (he wrote it just after “Long Day’s Journey Into Night”), penned extensive stage directions about exactly what the Night Clerk is thinking as Erie goes on and on. Hughes puts some of this material into the show via a dry voice-over by Reg Rogers (who sounds like a 1940s radio announcer). These glimpses of inner despair and distraction are often amusing, but you may worry that they’ll be intrusive.

Ditto for the projections — usually, but not always, of faces — that occasionally materialize on screens neatly camouflaged on the set. Yet Hughes governs these experiments well, and the show is never in real danger of growing mannered. Darrel Maloney’s moody black-and-white projections come and go quickly, like nagging memories. Ben Stanton’s dim lights and David Van Tieghem’s subtle sound design only add to the cavernous feeling of the purgatorial lobby, the emptiness where Erie rattles around.

It all adds up. This “Hughie” quietly slides into a deep existential funk that’s pure O’Neill, and the deceptively colorful Schiff expands and takes the space that the bluesy Erie needs — wandering into darkness, exploding in frustration, joshing himself back toward life. The show is short, barely an hour. But it’s a deep, full evening of theater.

Nelson Pressley is a freelance writer.

Hughie

By Eugene O’Neill. Directed by Doug Hughes. About one hour. Through March 17 at the Lansburgh Theatre, 450 7th St. NW. Call 202-547-1122 or visit shakespearetheatre.org

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