Toby or Not Toby?

In ‘Hughie,’ it’s hard not to see the guy we loved on ‘West Wing’

January 31, 2013
When Richard Schiff plays small-time gambler Erie Smith in “Hughie,” you might detect a trace of Toby Ziegler, Schiff’s role on “The West Wing.”
When Richard Schiff plays small-time gambler Erie Smith in “Hughie,” you might detect a trace of Toby Ziegler, Schiff’s role on “The West Wing.”

Attention “West Wing” nerds! (This is D.C.; we know your numbers are legion.) It’s a Toby Ziegler red alert!

Bethesda native Richard Schiff, the actor who indelibly portrayed the bearded, balding, brooding White House speechwriter Toby Ziegler for seven seasons on “The West Wing,” is currently starring in the Shakespeare Theatre’s production of Eugene O’Neill’s “Hughie.”

The two-character play is a little obscure — it was penned in 1942 and didn’t make it to Broadway until the mid-’60s. But if you’ve spent any time watching Toby, you’ll probably see a shared trait or two in Schiff’s “Hughie” performance.

Speechifying
Toby was the White House’s head speechwriter, and his grasp of cadence and diction showed every time he opened his mouth (and if you’re a character on an Aaron Sorkin show, that’s a lot of times). Schiff’s character in “Hughie,” small-time gambler Erie Smith, is quite the talker himself. Most of the play’s under-an-hour running time (hey, same as a “West Wing” episode!) is just lonely Erie chatting up the night clerk at the New York hotel where he lives.

Luck of the Draw
Toby was never more debonair than when playing poker with his White House cronies, cigar in hand. Erie Smith’s gambling habit is less fancy: Craps is not a dapper game. But even as a down-on-his-luck gambler, Smith claims to have skills — which gives Schiff a chance to draw on his experience as a contestant on “Celebrity Poker Showdown” in 2003.

He’s Got the Blues
Toby Ziegler always seemed sad. Yet he was also convinced that there was somebody — usually a woman with flowy hair — who could make everything better. Erie Smith operates on the same logic: His good-luck charm was Hughie, the hotel’s former night clerk, whose death has left Erie telling his hopeful life story to a new, zoned-out clerk.

Shakespeare Theatre’s Lansburgh Theatre, 450 7th St. NW; through March 17, $43-$100; 202-547-1122. (Archives)
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Kristen Page-Kirby | January 31, 2013