Dictator Tots

The gangster metaphor and spoof Shakespeare that give the piece its theatrical interest are both in a sense evasions. Brecht's version of how Ui/Hitler rose to power is a bare parable of money and guns. The rich use his bullyboy tactics to keep the workers quiet; once established, he simply solves every problem by killing. The idea that Hitler had any mass support, or that he used longstanding German anti-Semitic prejudices to win it, doesn't appear: All enthusiasm for Ui is demonstrated at gunpoint, and if Chicago's "Cauliflower Trust" mistreated Jewish grocers particularly, we don't hear about it. Brecht in his notes distinguishes between Hitler's pettiness and his crime's greatness, but his play diminishes the crime, too: Even in Chicago, one vegetable warehouse isn't the local equivalent of the Reichstag.

Nor does Brecht say anything about Hitler's own origins and motives. Ui, curiously, is depicted as an alien New Yorker in Chicago—"a simple son of the Bronx." Rather than the typically Bavarian Hitler, this evokes the Nazi propaganda image of the Jews as an "alien race." As for motives, Ui just likes to kill and possess power. That Hitler wanted something or believed in something—impulses shaped by the same German history that shaped Brecht—doesn't come into the picture.

Brecht hoped to teach the world to sneer at its Uis. But to do his play half a century later, ironically, only reinforces the opposite point. As a historical icon, Hitler is unforgettable; it's Brecht's tactics that have faded. Reluctant to face both certain basic human truths and the cold historical facts of Germany's case, he created what is, no matter how many showy tricks you play on it, a piece of slow-moving, insufficient, old news.

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

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Simon McBurney's direction is expectably full of showy tricks. Unlike those in his earlier work, they tend to underscore, at least while his starry cast is speaking, the play's already heavy burlesque. "Distancing" effects are reserved for serious moments, pushing us still further from any emotional connection. As a final directorial rabbit punch, the assertively fancy film and sound collages between scenes are made much more interesting than the unshaped and sluggish scenes themselves. The evening has a distinctive look, heavy on the harsh white, off-angle lighting associated with docudrama; its random and nonstop soundtrack gives away the absence of any overall vision.

Inside McBurney's panoply of noise and smoke, a lot of good performing work gets done, though to no particular effect. Among those making an impression in the babble are Dominic Chianese as the oily tycoon Clark; Billy Crudup as the sharpie Flake; Steve Buscemi as Givola/Goebbels, somehow managing to be dapper with a clubfoot; William Sadler as a bankrupt bigwig and a crooked judge; and Paul Giamatti as a sleazy journalist. But even the best work here is only middle-grounded, often lacking both roots and extravagance. None of Ui's henchmen is as creepily memorable as David Patrick Kelly's Givola in the CSC production of some years back. Pacino's Ui, exciting in its twisty physicality and always on the mark emotionally, is shot down by his voice, which has one high, throaty color left in it—no match for a role of Shakespearean length.

It would be easy to draw the glib moral that the cast members who've kept up sustained contact with the stage are those who do the best work there; and true, some acting chops are in better shape than others. But an actors' theater—a national actors' theater—would be one where the actors acted together, live, in front of an audience, constantly, and where the work evolved out of their commitment to each other as well as to their art. Randall tried, haltingly, to create such a theater on Broadway in the NAT's early years. Now that he's escaped from Broadway, and has celebritized his way back into the media's good graces, I rather hope he'll try again. Maybe this time I can figure out what he believes.

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