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Standing on Ceremony 

O'Neill, Pacino, Hughie and Ron Link

Wednesday, Jul 7 1999
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Photo by Craig SchwartzTHOUGH OUR CITY HAS MANY VIRTUES, THERE ARE REAsons why Los Angeles in general, and Los Angeles theater in particular, can be so embarrassing. Topping the list is a well-known penchant in this town to leap to one's feet at the curtain-call of just about anything. Ostensibly in appreciation of greatness, the standing ovations, when tendered so frequently, are simply evidence of not knowing any better -- that is, the distinction between good and great. Perhaps the standing ovation has become something like the wave in Dodger Stadium, rendered more from boredom and the collective urge to make something happen. Five of eight plays I saw over the past two weeks received the big S.O. -- three at the Music Center -- the cumulative impact being a pall upon the integrity of the gesture.

It could be anticipated that the crowd would jump up for Al Pacino as he took his bows at the Mark Taper Forum after his performance in, and direction of, Hughie, Eugene O'Neill's near one-man show. (Pacino shares the stage with Paul Benedict, who hangs around and punctuates Pacino's extended soliloquy with quizzical remarks.) This is Pacino's first local stage appearance, and patrons were so grateful that he showed up, if all he'd done was sit back and gargle, you'd probably have heard them diagnosing the brilliance of it in the lobby.

So it must have been Pacino's mere presence that accounted for the crowd's S.O. on the opening night of Hughie. It surely can't have been for the actual performance -- it was perfectly respectable, but nothing to stand up and shout about. Hughie is a profound, haunting sliver of a play, and much of that profundity emerges thanks in large part to the careful calibration of Pacino's staging. Written by O'Neill in 1941, when he was starting to suffer from Parkinson's disease and slightly more than a decade before his death, the one-act play is the sole survivor in a series of retrospective works in which a central character ruminates to a second character about the death of a third. The play looks back in agony to 1928 New York, to the lobby of a seedy residential hotel in which the entire action unfolds. Night clerk Charlie Hughes (Benedict) is working the graveyard shift, in just about every sense of that phrase. In wanders Erie Smith (Pacino), a failed gambler and resident dressed in a crumpled cream suit, a matching rimmed hat and spats, and recovering from a drunken binge.

"What a crummy dump. What did I come back for? When I first came here, this was a classy hotel," begins Erie's 60 minutes of snappy, hoarse-voiced ramblings at the sardonic clerk -- a new employee whose politeness is clearly a suffocating duty, while his boredom is pushing him to the edge of lunacy. Sometimes he answers Erie directly, showing a trace of the sarcasm boiling within. More often, that sarcasm is given full voice in the clerk's private thoughts, bouncing with an echo over the sound system. Benedict's perfection in the role is partly due to his odd physical shape; his trunk hangs Dali-esque, like a large brick suspended between a comparatively thin neck and legs -- the likes of which you'll only find belonging to night clerks and character actors. But the play hangs on Erie -- Pacino's contrapuntal fast-talking shadow boxer -- who is grieving both the death of his friend, Hughie (the former night clerk), and of his own good luck in gambling: two losses that Erie sees as related.

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David Gallo's set adds expressionist touches to the play's gritty realism: Against the back wall stands a series of dark overlapping panels, separated at the center to reveal a sliver of brightness, marbled by the shadows of fire escapes ascending to the sky -- shapes that Donald Holder's lights replicate across the set. The unornamented registration desk is complemented by a wooden block of hotel mailboxes that hangs suspended in the sky. Most significant is a clock that dangles center stage, measuring the relentless passage of trains and human dignity.

All of this would be far more kinetic were this production not within the plush confines of the Mark Taper Forum -- a luxurious venue that renders the play's desperation somewhat academic. Hughie should really be at the Egyptian Arena or the Henry Fonda theaters, in some once-ornate, now decrepit edifice that could support O'Neill's devastating view.

A few things happen through the hour as Erie shuffles across the faded checkerboard floor, or slumps in a stuffed chair. We glean a detailed, harrowing portrait of Hughie -- a naive "sap" or "sucker" to use Erie's parlance -- a man who cheated on his wife, the only other mourner, besides Erie, at his funeral. Then, Erie reveals that many of his sagas are hyperbole, and that his life is actually far more driven by fictions than by facts -- to the extent that, after an hour, the play's very frame of reality is subject to question. Finally, Charlie makes a concerted and remarkable effort to pay attention, to fight his own distraction, to offer a hint of friendship, like a bone of hope to a ravenous dog, creating a bond forged by something between tedium and love. As a backdrop to all this, the El train rumbles by -- as poetical as the faint, offstage musicians in a Chekhov play.

"Each [train] passing leaves one less to pass," Charlie reflects. (The line gets a laugh, derived from Benedict's corrosive tone.) "So the night recedes too," he continues. "Until at last it might die and join all the other nights in Nirvana." (Another laugh.) "The Big Night of Nights. And that's life." Jaw-dropped, Erie stares at Charlie -- a moment in which Pacino, the actor and director, nails the comedy of Erie's hubris and incomprehension.

Pacino's greatness as an actor is tempered in Hughie by his muted awareness of -- even playing to -- the audience, Pacino playing Pacino, thereby nudging O'Neill's ode to loneliness further in the direction of a sitcom than does the author credit. Good thing Pacino premiered his version in New York. Had it opened here, they'd all say it's just another Hollywood showcase.

A DIFFERENT KIND OF MEMORY PLAY TOOK PLACE last week at the packed Canon Theater, where a memorial service (with songs, prepared statements and a videotape presentation) was held for Ron Link, whose sudden death in surgery last month stunned the theater communities here and in New York. Link, in his 50s (the people who know his exact age aren't saying), was a theater director who came up through the East Coast and spent the better part of two decades directing dozens of some of the most visceral and thrilling productions this city has seen -- including Women Behind Bars, Bouncers, Delirious, Melody Jones, Twist of Fate, Stand-up Tragedy and Gravity Shoes. Probably most familiar -- because of its run at the Mark Taper Forum -- is his staging of Oliver Mayer's boxing drama, Blade to the Heat: in Link's care as much a dance as a play, a blend of artistry with street-smarts.

In one of the evening's reminiscences, playwright John Bunzel recounted how Link practically choreographed his realistic play, Delirious, about cokeheads, and how the psychology followed after. "He made the experimental accessible . . . He made the unorthodox mainstream."

"I want you to yell your lines from the minute you arrive on stage to the minute you leave," he instructed Caroline Aaron, an actor in Tom Eyen's comedy The Neon Women. Aaron said she protested that she'd rather carve an arc from the play, at which Link barked back: "Listen, bitch, these faggots want to hear you scream." She indeed screamed all her lines, and got rave reviews.

"Living in Hollywood is a little scarier without Ron here," Aaron noted.

Capping a video clip was the caption: "The End." Several hundred people rose to their feet in an ovation that lasted almost two minutes -- the one standing ovation I've seen this year that was actually deserved.

HUGHIE | By EUGENE O'NEILL | Featuring and directed by AL PACINO | At the MARK TAPER FORUM, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown | Through July 25

Reach the writer at smorris@laweekly.com

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