Al Pacino has played plenty of sleazy gangsters in his time. You could almost say he’s made a career of it. But Arturo Ui, the Chicago hoodlum in Bertolt Brecht’s satiric allegory about the rise of the Nazis, may just be Pacino’s sleaziest gangster yet. Stooped and hollow-eyed, skulking around the stage in a soiled tanktop and garish plaid pants as he brays out orders in a high-pitched whine, Pacino’s Ui suggests a mangy hyena with mild mental retardation. The effect is amusing and distinctly repellent — and, despite its noxiousness, irresistibly watchable.
Pacino’s rare foray onto a New York Stage has lent an air of occasion to this National Actors Theater production of Brecht’s infrequently staged play — and the company, which has been moribund for more than a year after abandoning its Broadway perch to take up residence downtown, at Pace University’s campus theater, can certainly use the publicity. More promising still was artistic director Tony Randall’s decision to tap visionary British director Simon McBurney, head of London’s adventurous Complicite troupe, to helm the company’s first show in its new digs.
In its 10-year history on Broadway, the National Actors Theater was generally known for stodgier fare presented in straightforward stagings. McBurney is anything but stodgy, and his production here is marked by the same intelligence, visual flair and theatrical exuberance that mark all his best work. It is also, for all its accomplishment, more than a little monotonous.
McBurney’s star-laden cast of 23, which includes such diverse names as Billy Crudup, Steve Buscemi, John Goodman, Chazz Palminteri and Charles Durning, is for the most part deeply in tune with the director’s bold, blazingly theatrical approach. Perhaps too deeply, at times: It’s often hard to shake the impression that the actors are all stalking the stage with megaphones in hand. (The acoustics in this less-than-cozy space might not help.) And as this undeniably spectacular three-hour evening unfolds — with captions and sometimes shocking newsreels projected on the wide set’s back wall, ominous string passages from Shostakovich whirring away in the background, the shadows of Christopher Shutt’s intricate lighting scheme extablishing a persistently portentous mood — suspicion gradually gives way to certainty that Brecht’s text might be better served by a lighter touch.
Brecht was not, after all, the subtlest of writers, and “Arturo Ui” is not even among his subtlest plays. Written while Brecht was in exile in Finland in 1941, when the Nazis had consolidated their power and the war in Europe was under way, “Arturo Ui” paints a blunt picture of a smug society easily corrupted and ultimately overtaken by a low-level hoodlum and his gang of thugs. Incidents in the play were specifically written to parallel key moments in the Nazis’ rise: the Reichstag fire, the Anschluss, etc.
The Chicago Cauliflower Trust is the intentionally ludicrous stand-in for Germany’s industrialists, the eminently respectable city functionary Dogsborough (Durning) the equivalent of the German president Hindenburg. Pacino’s Arturo Ui — the Hitler figure — is first glimpsed comically lamenting his powerlessness (“Even if I do a couple murders, I can’t be sure it’s gonna hit the front page”). But when he discovers that the trust has essentially bribed Dogsborough into approving a government loan to get them through some tough times, he sees his chance. Happily resorting to bullying when simple blackmail won’t do the trick, he and his feuding band of gangsters soon take control of the trust themselves, dispatch Dogsborough, muzzle the press and corrupt the courts. The play concludes with Ui expanding his grasp of the cauliflower biz to Cicero, the next town over, orating madly to the populace about free will in a place where he has violently stamped it out.
The debilitating flaw in McBurney’s production is that corruption appears to be rampant in Chicago as soon as the curtain rises. The tattered red velvet curtains, the ominous music, the gloomy lighting and the snarling comic tone tell us quite clearly that rot has already set in here. The action of the play, not nuanced to begin with, is essentially rendered redundant from the play’s opening tableau. How can you corrupt what is already corrupted?
Some of the play’s comic energies are similarly sapped by the depiction of Ui and his gang as a bunch of visibly foul operators who put up no pretense of respectability. Palminteri, who gives a convincing performance as Ui’s henchman Roma, wears jackboots and an evil glower, and the assorted minor criminals Ui surrounds himself with are obvious bottom-feeders. The lone female, for example, looks as if she just staggered in from Sam Mendes’ Kit Kat Klub, without so much as changing her lingerie. (There is also the usual equation of decadence with homosexuality; yawn.) So in the courtroom scene that concludes the first act, the humorous tension between the gangsters’ hollowly upstanding words and their outlandish behavior is drained away; these hoodlums don’t even pretend to believe their own denials — and why should they, in the poisoned atmosphere that has been so relentlessly established from the start?
If the play’s dramatic momentum is seriously compromised, the evening can still be intermittently enjoyed as a series of discrete setpieces, many of which are certainly terrifically staged and acted with robust vitality. Ui’s confrontation with Dogsborough finds a simpering Pacino climbing into the stunned man’s lap. The rivalry between Ui’s three primary goons — Palminteri’s Roma, Goodman’s flashy Giri and Buscemi’s oily “florist” Givola — ends in a spectacularly staged replay of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. Ui’s seduction of the newspaper owner Dullfleet (Paul Giamatti) in Givola’s flower shop is wittily presented, with Ui’s gang clustered ominously behind hand-held bouquets.
Maybe the choicest comic morsel is the scene in which Ui seeks out the advice of a broken-down actor, played with a nicely decayed hamminess by Randall himself, looking like a refugee from a Beckett play. Using Mark Antony’s funeral oration from Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” as the text, the actor and Ui enact a clumsy tutoring session as lunatic as it is macabre, with Pacino’s Ui idiotically mimicking the actor’s every mechanical flourish.
Periodically, McBurney makes attempts to point up the play’s possible contemporary relevance to American culture, but these ultimately come across as specious afterthoughts. Projecting a page of the U.S. Constitution over the grim finale of the courtroom scene, in which the justice system is depicted as an utter farce, is both vague and egregious, impossible to take seriously. It’s easy to imagine a production that makes a troubling case for the play’s relevance to today’s U.S. political climate — for the cauliflower biz, see the energy-trading one, say. But McBurney’s staging, which sacrifices nuance to theatrical bravura, isn’t the one.