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'Arturo Ui' proves hard to resist

October 23, 2002|Linda Winer | Newsday

NEW YORK -- It was not supposed to be this much fun. There appeared to be the aura of stunt, of Camp Hollywood hiatus, around the Bertolt Brecht production that Al Pacino and a mess of indie-film hotshots were play-acting for a few weeks down at the obscure Pace University theater, where Tony Randall recently retreated with his scorned Broadway misnomer, the National Actors Theatre.

Although all seats were going for $115, an off-Broadway record, the press was not even invited to warn the public until we threatened to storm the barricades. What, we had to wonder, was being hidden in the unlikely guise of a pre-Broadway work-in-progress?

Two weeks into an extended four-week run, we were grudgingly allowed in last weekend to be thoroughly surprised and delighted for almost three hours by Pacino, Steve Buscemi, John Goodman, Dominic Chianese, Billy Crudup, Chazz Palminteri, Charles Durning and Randall in "The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui."

Brecht wrote the macabre Chicago gangster-Adolf Hitler parable and raucous farce in 1941, soon after he began his exile from Germany. Even without the chilling Nazi parallels, the play connects the thuggery dots with terrible glee. And the implications of Brecht's cautionary epilogue are profound.

The hero of this National Actors Theatre production is clearly Pacino, that wildly eccentric but ever-dedicated stage seeker. This time Pacino has a real director. Simon McBurney, the visionary iconoclast from London's popular Complicite theater, runs the huge, mostly male cast as if he were choreographing a '30s Expressionist ballet. His high-styled, high-concept multimedia production is a bad-news circus, a heavily gestural dance of death between the silly and the unspeakable, the absurd and the strangely beautiful.

Pacino is a hoot as Ui, first a cadaverous old buzzard, a two-bit Chicago crook who uses the Depression, capitalist corruption and thugs with tommy guns to control the cauliflower market and, through protection rackets, catapults himself to the top of grocery crime. As he continues what Brecht insists is his resistible rise and grows a familiar little mustache, Ui sheds his old brown leather coat and plaid pants. But he still seems to have too many teeth in his mouth. He's still a little man in a big suit -- a cross between Pacino's Big Boy Caprice from "Dick Tracy" and an adenoidal "Richard III."

Did we mention that even Randall is terrific? He owns the tiny but pivotal part of the hambone actor, an old bore who teaches the low-life Ui to orate, to hold his genitals in public and to walk -- toes first, as in a goose step.

McBurney, with the help of George Tabori's playfully disciplined adaptation, finds just the right quirky characters for his feast of offbeat actors. Buscemi is creepy with dignity as Givola, the "florist," the henchman with the clubbed foot and a hip way with the pole microphone. Durning is endearingly deft and upstandingly duplicitous as Dogsborough -- Brecht's parallel to Weimar Republic president Paul Hindenburg -- the mayor who is blackmailed into comatose complicity.

Goodman is ideally foolish as the evil clown, Giri; Palminteri plays easily with loyalty as Ui's heavy; and Chianese -- Uncle Junior to the Soprano clan -- is likably corrupt as the cauliflower mogul. Crudup does neat double duty as the slick moneyman Flake and the -- Jewish? -- lawyer who defends the communist framed for torching a warehouse -- echoes of the burning of the Reichstag. Paul Giamatti has a fabulous moment as a dwarf named Dullfeet, while, as his widow, underutilized Linda Emond squirms her legs as if they're weapons.

The whole extravaganza is wrapped in Robert Innes Hopkins' costumes and sets, a simple stage upon a stage upon which worlds are carved up.

McBurney knows how to get a slow-motion scene to be funny and scary at the same time. The sounds of Shostakovich churn under the war newsreels, while projections by Ruppert Bohle make vertigo seem like narrative. Before this weekend, we scoffed at the ticket price and talk of a Broadway transfer. No more.

Linda Winer is the chief theater critic at Newsday, a Tribune newspaper.


`The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui'

Where: National Actors Theatre, Michael Schimmel Center for the Arts, Pace University, 1 Pace Plaza, New York.

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday; 3 p.m. Sunday.

Ends: Nov. 3.

Tickets: Tickets must be purchased as part of a membership for the National Actors Theatre and are available now through Telecharge at (212) 239-6280.

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