CHINESE COFFEE. Play by Ira Lewis.
SALOME. Play by Oscar Wilde.
Starring Al Pacino. In repertory at the Stamford Center for the Arts in Stamford, Conn. through Jan. 2.
THE COLORS OF CHRISTMAS. Musical revue.
At the Beacon Theatre in New York.
AL PACINO won the Academy Award for Best Actor last year for his stirring performance in the hit film ``Scent of a Woman.'' His career, after suffering a slump in the mid-1980s, is as hot as it has ever been. So where did he spend the month of December? In a villa in the Caribbean, perusing scripts? On the set of his latest big-budget film?
No. He spent it at the Stamford Center for the Arts in Connecticut, performing two lesser-known plays, Oscar Wilde's ``Salome'' and Ira Lewis's ``Chinese Coffee,'' in repertory. And, for good measure, he treated subscribers to screenings of his new project, a documentary film about Shakespeare's ``Richard III.''
The actor has been playing in these two dramas on and off for several years, including last year in New York. They are further proof, if it were needed, that in Pacino we have an actor who is not only one of the most compelling performers working today, but also one who is supremely devoted to his craft. These two works are as unlike as they can be - there is nothing to link them overtly save the star's determination and acting brilliance.
``Chinese Coffee'' is a two-character piece about the late-night encounter between two of life's dispossessed: Jacob (Ben Gazzara), a theatrical photographer with no clients and no money, and Harry (Pacino), a middle-aged novelist at the end of his rope who can't even afford his favorite repast, a cup of coffee in Chinatown. To add to his problems, he's been picked up by the police, because he's the exact double of a maniac who recently went on a killing spree.
Harry stops by Jacob's apartment ostensibly to demand the return of some money that Jacob borrowed, but really to find out his friend's reaction to his latest novel. Playwright Lewis has constructed a meandering dialogue, filled with quirky digressions, that doesn't come to its real subject until near the end. It seems that Jacob is disturbed by the novel, which uses him as a main character. He and Harry engage in a passionate debate about art, friendship, and the meaning of success.
As as urban hustler, Pacino is very much in his natural element (much more so than in ``Salome,'' in which he plays King Herod), and he offers a mesmerizing and astutely detailed portrayal of a man who has been pounded by defeat but regains his dignity. In the beginning of the play, the actor shuffles around and mumbles his dialogue, nearly retreating into his battered overcoat, but by the end, when the character asserts himself, his power takes over the stage.
As the acerbic Jacob, Gazzara is more than an able match, giving a deadpan comic performance. ``Chinese Coffee'' and ``Salome'' are an opportunity to see two great performers flexing their acting muscles onstage.
OURING the country this holiday season, ``The Colors of Christmas'' boasts an all-star lineup, including Roberta Flack, Peabo Bryson, Patti Austin, and Jeffrey Osborne. Featuring both Christmas music and the singers' own hits, it recently touched down in Manhattan for an engagement at the Beacon Theatre.
As might have been expected, this quickly thrown-together tour was a hit-or-miss affair, but it did offer the opportunity to hear four great soul singers for the price of one ticket. The New York engagement was supplemented by special guests such as the Boys Choir of Harlem, which almost stole the show, and talk-show host Sally Jesse Raphael, who read ``A Visit from St. Nicholas.''
Alternating solo sets, the singers overcame the mediocre playing of the orchestra to deliver stirring versions of their hits: Flack with ``Killing Me Softly With His Song,'' Osborne with ``On the Wings of Love,'' Bryson with ``If Ever You're in My Arms Again.''
Austin and Osborne knew best how to work the crowd - Austin with enough comedy material to support a stand-up act, and Osborne wandering out into the audience to offer people a chance to sing his ``Woo Woo Song.'' There were also several notable duets, including Osborne and Austin's beautiful ``How Do You Keep the Music Playing'' and Bryson and Austin's version of his hit from Disney's ``Aladdin,'' ``A Whole New World.''