F. Murray Abraham in The Merchant of Venice. Photo courtesy of The Broad Stage.
On April 14th I will be attending the opening night performance of Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice at the wonderfully intimate 499-seat venue, The Broad Stage (1310 Tenth St, at Santa Monica Blvd, 310-434-3200), which will run at the Santa Monica playhouse until the 24th of the month. May I suggest that you call or go online (thebroadstage.com) and order tickets immediately, 'cause this is going to be a real winner of a production. With all of the attention which Al Pacino's portrayal of Shylock recently received in New York, avid theatergoers are still talking about another production which played concurrently to extraordinary reviews. In reviewing this ingenious, modernized version, Charles Isherwood's New York Times review said, "In Darko Tresnjak's haunting production, F. Murray Abraham's performance of Shylock is as daring as it is powerful." Yes, that Academy Award-winning actor, F. Murray Abraham, who won the Oscar in 1984 for his portrayal of Antonio Salieri in Amadeus. "Touches greatness in every aspect of an immensely challenging role," said the New York Observer, while Stephen Greenblatt, in the N.Y. Review of Books, wrote, "Among the great performances of our time."
F. Murray Abraham in the Shakespeare tragic comedy. Photo courtesy of The Broad Stage.
I admit that I do have a intense interest in seeing his performance, since I did catch Pacino's Shylock in Central Park last year. My relationship with Al goes back a long way, to 1969, when I found the ragged, untamed young actor in an off-off-Broadway performance in a Village loft. I was scouting actors with director Michael Schultz for my Broadway production of Don Petersen's powerful Does A Tiger Wear A Necktie? We both were so impressed by the sheer raw terror of his performance that we went backstage and gave him a few pages of 'sides,' telling him that we were casting our play and would like him to audition the next day at the Belasco Theatre. At five p.m. that day, after seeing about 300 actors for the play (Jon Voight, etc.) which is about a group of rebellious kids in the Rikers Island high school jail, starring Hal Holbrook as the teacher and David Opatashu as the school psychiatrist, a rumpled, unshaven Pacino ambled onstage wearing a long olive drab Army overcoat, a wool cap pulled down over his skull, and holding a can of beer. "I'm a little drunk, but I'd like to try it," he volunteered. The director went to the front of the stage to give him his cues, and Pacino began a scene where his character describes how he encountered his errant father in his barbershop and beats him up. The moment he opened his mouth, I joined the director on stage; we were mesmerized by the intensity and letter-perfect reading which the young actor gave. I turned to Michael and whispered, "He's our Bickham."
I will never forget opening night in February of 1969. We received respectable reviews from the papers, but it was a triumph for Pacino. The moment he walked on stage, entered the psychiatrist's office and kicked the door shut with a snap of his heel, I heard the audience gasp... and the rest of the evening he held them in the palm of his hand. That May, he won the Tony Award, suitably thanking me, and then we closed. I called director Francis Coppola, who was casting a movie called The Godfather, and suggested he see this actor from my play for the role of Sonny, the brother. (Later, Francis and I would be shooting films at Paramount at the same time, he his little gangster epic and me the Billie Holiday movie.) Three weeks after his interview, Al rang my doorbell at 50 Central Park West and asked if he could borrow a quarter to take the bus uptown to Harlem, where he was living with Jill Clayburgh. "Oh, by the way," he snapped, "I got the part of Michael." "No," I shouted, "you were supposed to be up for Sonny" (played brilliantly by Jimmy Caan). The rest is... history.
Many years later, my friend Penny McTaggart and I went to the Hollywood Blvd. premiere of a little movie about Richard III which Al directed and starred in. After the screening, we went to the party... and I saw Al in the far corner of the lobby standing quietly and smoking a cigar. He caught my eye and beckoned us over, then embraced me and whispered to her in his raspy voice, "If it weren't for him, I wouldn't be here tonight." (Yet over the years, whenever I approached him about being in one of my films, it somehow never worked out.) I respected his dramatically over-the-top performance as Shylock... but that's why I'm so looking forward to seeing F. Murray Abraham's version. See you at The Broad Stage!
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