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Schiff’s New Role Connects Him to the District

“It was a big deal. It’s very hard — very hard.”

Richard Schiff looks happy. At least, for him.

He’s a uniquely Washington celebrity, best known for his role as salty White House Communications Director Toby Ziegler on NBC’s “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. He’s 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, Schiff’s 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 hasn’t 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 Company’s production of Eugene O’Neill’s “Hughie,” Schiff is downright pleased, very un-Toby-like.

O’Neill’s Way

That day’s performance of “Hughie” went well, he said.

Schiff walks from the backstage door through the lobby of the Shakespeare’s 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, he’s 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 doesn’t 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 Pacino’s Shelley Levene in the recent revival of David Mamet’s “Glengarry Glen Ross.”

Schiff sees both works reflecting the political and cultural fears of the times.

Schiff said he’s 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 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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