The New York Times, Monday, April 25, 1977
"Rabe's ‘Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel,'
With Al Pacino"
by Clive Barnes
The thing about Al Pacino's acting-- the reason it stirs us in an almost unpredictable, almost, you note, not quite, way-- is that it is a two-part fugue. It is acting in two voices, at two pressures. He is constantly alternating between intense and the casual, the comic and the deeper than comic. The voice at one moment will have the flip descant of the streets to it, and soon after it will be calling a different statement, with a slightly different tone.
It was all apparent years ago when he made his New York debut in Isreal Horovitz' "The Indian Wants the Bronx." It was apparent again last night-- a few plays and, more recently, a few films farther on-- when he starred in the Theater Company of Boston's production of "The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel." It was at the Longacre Theater.
"Pavlo Hummel" is the first play of David Rabe's trilogy, which was completed with "Sticks and Bones" and "Streamers." They all absorb a different part of the author's Vietnam experience-- possibly in this first, horror, then in the second, guilt, and finally in "Streamer," irrationality. But "Pavlo Hummel" is an abstracted, existentialist scream of pain at the horror of war and the nearness of death.
The structure of the play is complex, but, particularly in this Broadway production, which seemed a marked improvement upon the original New York Sakespeare Festival staging, surprisingly simple to follow. It is cyclic in that it begins and ends with Hummel's fatal accident in a Vietnamese whorehouse. Yet the structure is, in fact, a web-like continuum in which past and present are intermingled. It is Hummel going through his basic training, in brief, cinematic-style vignettes, but it is also Hummel learning the facts of death in Vietnam as a medical orderly.
There is no theme except the terrible and basic theme of waste-- human waste. Nothing happens except the accidents and incidents of war and training for war. Yet Mr. Rabe records and heightens, selects and editorializes, like a war correspondent of God. It is a play beautiful in its shabbiness, proud in the honesty of its despair.
The present production, set precipitously on a sloping stage that tumbles over into the orchestra, wonderfully maintains the play's hit-and-run fluidity, the playwright's flashes of actions and contemplative dissolves.
It also spotlights, unobtrusively even, the three main characters-- Hummel, this modern, urban, American Wozzeck; the black drill sergeant, Tower, with his bull-honey voice, who seems to represent the military establishment, and Ardell, another black, either a sergeant or an officer, and in any event a fantasy, who walks alongside Hummel's basic training, comforting, chiding, exhorting, and even explaining that it is inexplicable.
David Wheeler's direction makes the most out of these relationships, and also places Hummel neatly against the background of his fellow trainees, as a loner but a sort of conformist loner. He really wanted to be a soldier-- and the Army made him one. A dead soldier, as it happened. Robert Mitchell's muti-purpose scenery and David F. Segal's lighting added much to the production's effectiveness.
The acting is admirably cohesive, even if some of the cast looked a little old for the draft. Mr. Pacino has lost nothing in his absence from the stage. He is still a skeleton hand in a shabby velvet glove, he still moves like a boxer, and addresses the audience directly with the daring impudence of an Olivier.
He has an oddly modern face, and a body with a gracefulness that belies its shape. Yet the effect is compelling, the oddity is beautiful, and the variety of his playing, that frugal alternation of stress and release, draws one into the private stage of his mind. As I left the theater almost all I could think of was what an idiot I had been to miss the chance of seeing him play Richard III and Arturo Ui in Boston. It would have been so easy. And for a real theatergoer to miss a great performance available to him is a diminution of experience, a tiny death.
Joe Fields, burly, hectoring, dedicated, made a masterful Sargeant Tower, and Gustave Johnson, mocking yet compassionate, saw Ardell, as surely did the playwright, as a dark angel of compassion. Of the others I particularly noticed Larry Bryggman as the agressive Kress, Max Wright as the contemplative Parker, and Richard Lynch as an embittered stump of a man courting death in a wheelchair.
An abrasive, honest play, well worth seeing even if you have already seen it Off-Broadway. Partly because this is a play that gains from the context of its successors, and partly because of Mr. Pacino's jauntily luminous and pathetic performance.