Dictator Tots

Tony Randall loves the theater. Having made his career in light comedy, and his money in television, he now wants only to produce, direct, and act in dramatic masterpieces. This may be slightly more worrisome—clowns who aspire to play Hamlet traditionally get less than great results—but it's still praiseworthy. During the years of his now-battered National Actors Theatre's struggle for survival, Randall has made countless mistakes, but he's also kept the faith, which is the important thing. I don't much like his current production, or his current way of operating his theater, and I may have harsh words for both before this review ends. But my harshness comes from respect, not from contempt. What Randall wants is both fundamentally good and near-impossible to achieve in New York; whatever else he may have done wrong, he's never stopped wanting it. And after a century's worth of dreamers who had the same dream, and got kicked about for it by New York in exactly the same way, what Randall wants is harder than ever to attain. Yet he keeps trying. So hooray for him. Randall began with the idea of a permanent company on Broadway doing a continuous season. After some bad miscalculations in the choice of casts, directors, and plays, the company idea faded, replaced by a one-production-at-a-time policy, heavy on star names and familiar American plays. Its choices soon dropped down a notch, from the commendable to the commercially viable. And the star names that had once animated starring roles have become box-office decoration, scattered through the cast at random.

Ergo, Arturo Ui, which might be described as Hollywood's atonement for having treated Bertolt Brecht so rottenly in his lifetime. Movie stars twinkle at you from roles large and small, flanked by genuine stage-and-film stars, plus a few flavors of the theatrical month. At the top of the starpile, in the title role, is Al Pacino, fulfilling a lifelong dream. In directorial charge is a stylish import, Simon McBurney, already well known for purveying the kind of pretentious avant-chic loved by the sages of the Arts & Leisure section. Artistic director Randall himself takes a turn onstage, portraying—what else?—The Actor, who coaches Ui in deportment. Can old-time Broadway teach grandeur to post-Method filmdom?

None of these choices is discreditable or wrong in itself. Whatever one thinks of celebrity casting, it has undeniably made the NAT a local center of talk and excitement for the moment. Pacino's stature entitles him to choose his roles; Randall's quick comic address suits a figure who must be both spoofed and sympathetic. Contradicting prior expectations, McBurney's work here is often lively and intelligent, even when its intelligence leads it in damaging directions. As separate elements, things could be worse at Arturo Ui.

Randall and Pacino (front): a gangster prepares.
photo: Joan Marcus
Randall and Pacino (front): a gangster prepares.

Details

The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui
By Bertolt Brecht, translated by George Tabori
Schimmel Center, Pace University
3 Spruce Street
212-239-6200

But as a whole they couldn't, for one fatal reason. What goes on in the comfy theater at Pace University's Schimmel Center is not theater, in any respect, and has nothing to do with that art. Apart from Pacino's yearning to play the title role, nobody involved has any noticeable feelings about Arturo Ui. The play's intent, such as it is, is irrelevant to the cast; the cast is irrelevant to the directorial approach. And the play, far from being an imperishable masterpiece, is almost the biggest irrelevancy of all—at best, it's a piece of preaching to the choir. When the sermon has ended its run, the NAT may continue, and some of the artists involved may continue with it. But their doing so will have little or nothing to do with Arturo Ui.

The missing piece in this puzzle is not celebrity, money, critical support, or even daring. What's missing is the element every great theater shares: a sense of artistic identity. I have been going to the NAT for a decade now, and I still don't know what it is. I know who Tony Randall is, and there's much about him that I like, but I have no idea what, if anything, he believes in, artistically speaking. This is not something I could have said about Eva le Gallienne, Ellis Rabb, Norris Houghton, Jules Irving, or Joseph Papp, each of whom fought some part of this battle before Randall. I don't mean that I admire uncritically everything they did, only that when they did a play, they knew why they were doing it, how it spoke to the audience they most wanted to reach, and how, ideally, they would like to see it done. If Tony Randall has any such notions, 10 years haven't revealed them.

Nor does Arturo Ui. Leaving Pacino aside, it seems like an earnest college professor's choice for a time when civil liberties are being crunched. Finished in the early 1940s but not produced till after Brecht's death, it's never been ranked with his best work. A salty but fundamentally dry piece, it uses its one metaphor in a linear, almost plodding, fashion, telling the story of Hitler's rise to power as a string of tableaux from gangster movies. Its single stylistic joke, caught with salt plus a heavy dash of tabasco in George Tabori's translation, is to dignify both Hitler and gangsters by casting the story in Shakespearean blank verse, Brecht's burlesque of which makes running mockery of the Nazis' bloated bureaucratese.

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