Saturday, March 16, 2013

A Teller of Tales

Richard Schiff as Erie Smith and Randall Newsome as Night Clerk in the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of 'Hughie', directed by Doug Hughes. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

If you go to the Shakespeare Theatre looking for excitement, stage combat, or pratfalls, Hughie might not be the right show for you. The play, written by Eugene O’Neill and directed by Doug Hughes, is close to an hour long and has only two speaking characters. It’s set in a run-down motel somewhere in New York City. The play is all dialogue and no action--unless pacing, smoking cigarettes, and rolling dice can count as action.

Despite the lack of significant dramatic movement, Richard Schiff (playing, according to the handbill, “Erie Smith, a teller of tales”) still managed to take up the whole stage with his persona. Even in the face of Erie’s charisma, the Night Clerk at the hotel (expressively acted by Randall Newsome) quickly is distracted, listening to garbage collectors and the e-trains, or so the omniscient narrator tells us.

The Night Clerk is not the only one in the theater who loses interest. Given all of the sighs, snores, and rustling, I’m pretty sure that at times most of the audience (me included) had their attention stolen away from the plot of the play. But I don’t think that the production was intended to hold the audience’s attention. As my attention drifted, so did the Night Clerk’s. I began to feel that he was being compared to me. Occasionally my mind drifted off and I missed what Erie was talking about. Every so often, the narrator informed us that the Night Clerk was also feeling guilty about losing focus on Erie’s story. Just as the Night Clerk is distracted by the world of the hotel, we sometimes drift away from what we are watching on stage.

The distractions felt by the Night Clerk and by the audience are enhanced by the many distractions on the stage. Every corner seems to be filled with strange and magical doors, windows, paintings, and a clock. Also supporting the central theme of the play are Catherine Zuber’s costumes which fit the characters perfectly in more than one way. The Night Clerk was dressed in a trim but worn tuxedo which looked well cared for, even with the fraying collar and cuffs. His care of his cloths mirrored his feeling of responsibility for his job. The audience didn’t even need the characters to engage in dialogue before we understood their personalities. The lighting, designed by Ben Stanton, was both straightforward and expressive. Lights followed Erie’s pacing and dimmed gently every time the Night Clerk’s thoughts wandered.

All in all, the production is seamless. Without action or excessive humor but with a significant depth of ideas, the play left me thinking for hours. The play has a strange quality to it and is perhaps best acknowledged by the sound of the name of the play’s main speaker: eerie.

Most of all, the play was open. What is its meaning? Does it come from Erie’s story? Is it from the way he tells his story? Does it come from the response by the clerk and by us? Or is there even a meaning at all?