Theater archives

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.

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.

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.

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.