For my tastes, there are few moments more exciting in an evening of theater than the one where something is strewn across the floor. Particularly in theaters without curtains, this means that the play is almost over.
I found myself perking up when, in "Chinese Coffee," one of the two characters threw the other's manuscript on the floor. I knew the play, which had meandered for 90 minutes with no sense of purpose, would finally come to an end.
Ira Lewis' play is about two supposed friends, though nothing about the dialogue suggests any depth to their relationship, any believable or even interesting past they have shared. Mainly they lob wisecracks off one another.
Sometimes the lines have a pungency to them. When the portrait photographer tells the novelist, "You've used as a kind of mortar that polluted energy of this city," it has strength. But mostly the lines are glibly flip.
When the writer asks his friend, "Are you saying I have no talent?" the photographer replies, "I am saying something worse - you have no money." This is a feeble attempt at humor, justified only by the fact that the lack of money has apparently driven the writer crazy.
The novel itself is a roman a clef about the two men. The photographer calls the two characters "colossal bores," and you know it's intended as a pre-emptive strike on Lewis' part, anticipating what reviewers might say.
The two men, both 50, are still obsessed by conventional ideas about success. The fact that they have no deeper understanding of the creative life makes you wonder why anyone considers them worth 90 minutes of our time.
It was Al Pacino who apparently thought the play was worth the investment of his and our time. The novelist gives him a chance to radiate the nervous energy that gives whatever he plays a great tension. But that's about it. His customary intensity gives the play a little juice, but nothing he does can flesh out the thinness of the writing.
Charles Cioffi makes an able sparring partner for him, but his character is even more sketchily conceived.
It is admirable that Pacino has interrupted his movie career to do this play and "Salome" in repertory. In both he exhibits his gift for the quirky and his formidable energy, but neither repays his investment; neither suggests the range of his talent or intelligence.
Almost half a century ago Laurence Olivier waltzed into the annals of acting history with his sensation-making double bill at London's Old Vic of Oedipus in "Oedipus Rex" and Mr. Puff in Sheridan's "The Critic." He was 38 at the time.
Right now at the Circle in the Square, 52-year-old Al Pacino is, on a different scale and over two nights rather than one, mirroring that feat.
His high-camp, deep-purple reading of Herod in "Salome" I have already praised to the skies. Now he has matched this with a low-keyed, dirty-gray rendition of a contemporary loser in its repertory partner, Ira Lewis' "Chinese Coffee." Fight for seats for either, or better, both.
"Chinese Coffee" is slight but not weak, the kind of talkathon drama - two guys slugging it out in a wordfest mixture of disclosure and recrimination - that August Strindberg once made so peculiarly his own.
Jake (Charles Cioffi) is a classic Greenwich Village blowhard - a long ago failed writer now uncomfortably esconced in his mid-50s and a cheerless loft, trying to make at least one end meet as a photographer of theatrical stills.
In the wee hours of a cold morning, his doorbell rings and it is his friend Harry (Pacino), shivering from cold, neglect and neuroses. Harry is broke. Jake, also broke, owes him a lot of money - nearly 500 bucks charged on Harry's unlikely credit card.
But the play isn't about money - certainly not about Harry's 500 bucks - the concern is the manuscript of Harry's latest novel, sent to his friend months ago. He has since heard nothing. Not a peep. Not a cheep. Nada. Why?
At first it seems Jake hasn't read it. Why again? Then slowly it comes out in a gush of resentment. Jake certainly has read it, and noticed, all too well, that Harry's two leading characters in this tale dragged from Bohemia are a couple very like Jake and Harry...very, very like.
Indeed soon jake is accusing his friend of twisting words and "stealing his life" for fun and profit - of using their shared reality to create a fiction and make a best seller. Nothing actually happens, and the only doubt is whether Harry has really written a best seller that will belatedly make him rich and famous, or whether this is merely fantasy conjured by Jake's envy.
What is important is how cleverly Lewis has drawn these characters - even their hypochondria is horribly credible - also how deftly the director Arvin Brown has staged them. And that is not even to mention the acting, which provides the evening's major joy.
Cioffi proves wonderful as Jake, a bullying failure of a man, uncompromising towards everyone but himself. Indeed, Cioffi is so good that Pacino never has a free ride in securing our notice. But secure it he does. Pacino has that Midas-touch of genius that turns the stage to gold.
You don't really notice in movies how good he is, because like Olivier he is not really a movie actor - although like Olivier he can pretend, to great effect. His skills - and here he is totally unlike Olivier - are those of being. He inhabits roles rather than plays them.
His Harry, like his Herod, shows an actor in a world of his own virtual reality; talking and moving with a right of expression that makes concepts of spontaneity, even of mannerism, irrelevant. His performance transcends performance because he doesn't act in the normal way of acting.
He takes a stage and fills it with himself - and if any film director could find a way of harnessing that possession to a camera, it would make a deathless movie. Meanwhile, the theater, oddly enough for a movie star, remains Pacino's truest element. Welcome home.
"Chinese Coffee" is a small, naturalistic two-character play, scarcely more than a one-act sketch. Just as Mr. Pacino enlivens "Salome" with his presence, he is so intense in "Chinese Coffee" that he almost makes the work seem worthy of his talent. The actor has found a part but not a play.
In character, he looks as if he had not slept or washed in weeks. He wears layers of seedy clothing, warding off the winter cold in the manner of a homeless person. He is not homeless, simply angry: a struggling New York novelist who is tired of struggling. As the play begins, he is badgering his best friend (Charles Cioffi) for an unpaid debt and for praise for his latest manuscript. Neither will be forthcoming, but it takes time for the playwright to get to the point. As one readily surmises, the unpublished book is about the two friends and their not-so-carefree adventures.
The slim plot of Mr. Lewis's work deals with the artist's right to use material from his life and the lives of those who are close to him. The taunting interchanges become a verbal battle, but the characters do not seriously confront the central issue. They simply move from one argument to another.
"Chinese Coffee" is brewed according to formula. It does not have the two- character life of plays like Terrence McNally's "Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune" (which Mr. Pacino did as a movie). Although it lasts only 90 minutes, it seems overextended. But it gives the actor impetus, and he embellishes his role with his savvy, humor and urban instincts. Fast on his feet and with his mouth, and filled with unpredictable shifts of mood, he plays this part as if he is darting through traffic against the lights. One never knows where he will find his next opening.
Under the carefully paced direction of Arvin Brown, Mr. Pacino and Mr. Cioffi invest the show with acting panache. They become believable as duelists jabbing at each other's vulnerabilities and rising in dudgeon as the play demands. Mr. Cioffi is amusing in his bluster, but his character is hardly more than an irritant and sounding board. Mr. Pacino gives a more varied performance. He is an inventive actor even when he has so little with which to work.
Less a play than a middling acting exercise, "Chinese Coffee" would disappear into the ether but for one significant thing: the actor working the theatrical nuts and bolts on this inelegant contraption is Al Pacino, and he loves every minute of it. True, he is repeating himself - here are the neurotic hero of "Author, Author," the edgy street hustler of "American Buffalo," the sad sack recluse of "Frankie and Johnny."
All those familiar echoes only make one yearn for the real thing. It may be the case that Pacino saw in "Chinese Coffee" a star turn to match those provided him by the likes of David Mamet, Israel Horovitz and Terrence McNally. He's been fooled. Ira Lewis' play provides the star a rudimentary showcase and no more. It's tired fare.
Actually, tired may be overly harsh. Pacino's body language is too vivid, too communicative to let even the flattest language lie. He plays Harry Levine, a desperately poor writer who has entrusted the manuscript of his latest novel, a roman a clef, to his best friend, Jake (Charles Cioffi), a paparazzi wannabe 10 years his senior and several hundred dollars in his debt.
The first part of the one-act's 90 minutes is a dance around the subject at hand. Harry arrives at Jake's downtown loft late one night in the dead of winter, freezing and shaking and demanding repayment of monies owed. Jake dances back, knowing that money is not the real issue. For what Harry really wants to talk about is his manuscript, which is a xerographic depiction of their lives.
When Harry responds to some provocation with a standard-issue retort like, "I will not let you fuck with my mind," Pacino delivers it with a special elan. His body surrounds the obscenity like a cocoon, padding it and giving it an extra resonance, his arms curving around it like parentheses. It's a wonderful gesture, with elements of rage and submission. A Pacino performance has few subtleties; here - as in "Salome," which he is performing in repertory with "Chinese Coffee" - everything is laid out, childlike, before the audience.
After a lot of back-and-forth about money, women and life, the play finally comes around to the door-stopping reality of Harry's novel. Jake seems desperate to convince Harry not to publish it, though none of its revelations seem particularly threatening. What remains is the competition between Harry and Jake that was so clear at the outset.
That's where the failure of "Chinese Coffee" comes into focus. For while two characters inhabit it, only one voice is in evidence. Ira Lewis has written a pas de deux - for a soloist. That reduces the workmanlike Cioffi to a state of redundancy. The play is really the interior monologue of a writer who has finally written his breakthrough piece and cannot stand the process of waiting to see what will happen to it.
"Chinese Coffee" has some emotional zingers toward the end, and Arvin Brown has directed with an appropriately Mametian earthiness. In the end, this is a star turn, and Pacino delivers. Without him, "Chinese Coffee" would not exist. With him, it's like one Michelin star: It may not rate a special trip, but it's worth a look if you're in the neighborhood.