Al Pacino and the role that pulled him to the Pasadena Playhouse stage

Al Pacino stumbles onstage during rehearsals at the Pasadena Playhouse, his rumpled suit too loose, his hair disheveled, his eyes buggy. The set of playwright Dotson Rader’s “God Looked Away,” which begins performances Wednesday, is a lavish Chicago hotel in 1981, the evening before Tennessee Williams’ final opening.

“I was smokin’,” Pacino mumbles, in character as Williams, collapsing onto a chaise longue. He fidgets, full of angst, as a golden-haired, shirtless young man massages his shoulders. Pacino’s character could be drunk, or fiercely hungover — or both. Or maybe it’s the Demerol shot. “I was still smokin’ then … I was smokin’…” he whines.  

Suddenly, a screech offstage jars Pacino out of character. Or does it?

“Should I stand here?” he says in that gravelly voice, peering into the darkened audience at director Robert Allan Ackerman. “I could do it from over here, maybe.”

From Pacino’s shuffling and slouched shoulders, it’s not clear if the actor has broken character. Ackerman, who directed Pacino in a 1992 revival of Oscar Wilde’s “Salome” on Broadway, says the actor doesn’t really step out of character when rehearsing. That commitment, and loose parallels between Pacino and Williams, explain why the film star is so perfect for the part, Ackerman says.

“Al brings an enormous amount of compassion to the role,” Ackerman says, “an understanding of what it is to have been a major, major force and to have a career that spans such a long time. And he understands how hard it is to be criticized, to be judged unfairly. He understands the life of a true artist who’s also a superstar in his own right.”

“God Looked Away” draws from journalist Rader’s 1985 memoir, “Tennessee: Cry of the Heart,” about his friendship with Williams. The play follows a rocky period in the playwright-screenwriter-novelist’s late life, a time when he was struggling with drug addiction, critics and the pressures of living in his own, larger-than-life shadow. It zooms in on two difficult days before the premiere of his last produced play, “A House Not Meant to Stand,” and mines themes of success and excess, fading glory, addiction, love, regret, aging and death. 

Tony winner and “Transparent” matriarch Judith Light costars as Williams’ friend, Estelle, and “Hairspray Live!” actor Garrett Clayton plays his “rental companion,” as Rader refers to him.

But when the curtain rises for public performances this week, don’t call it an “opening.” Rader’s first produced play, which he wrote with Pacino in mind, is a still-in-development piece, the inaugural production from the Pasadena Playhouse’s new PlayWorks program, an expanded version of the theater’s Hothouse program aimed at developing new material. 

Under longtime artistic director Sheldon Epps, Hothouse staged workshop readings by emerging and seasoned writers and composers. “Sister Act: The Musical,” which premiered on the theater’s main stage in 2006, began as a Hothouse reading. Epps stepped down last year, assuming the role of artistic director emeritus for the current season, and Danny Feldman, previously executive director at New York’s Labyrinth Theater Company, took his place as producing artistic director in September. Expanding Hothouse — the number of plays it tackles and the depth of development — was at the top of Feldman’s agenda.

“I wanted to do even more,” he says. “It’s about giving space to artists to work on their plays in a safe space. In New York a lot of theaters do that — programs to make new plays — but you don’t see as much of it here. I’m particularly interested in an artist-centric approach: What do you need to finish this play, what questions do you have and how can we help you figure it out?”  

PlayWorks will conduct readings, deeper-dive workshops of new material and fully staged productions. The six-week run of “God Looked Away,” even with Pacino and Light and with tickets in the realm of $25 to $200, is essentially a test run. The audience is integral to the process — “a second writer,” as Rader says. Based on how the show plays on stage and depending on audience feedback (likely through surveys), Ackerman and Rader will make tweaks.

It’s a risky, process, Feldman says, sitting down with Ackerman and Dotson in the theater’s library during a dinner break from rehearsal. But that’s partly why the theater wanted star power on the bill. 

“Making a play is an extremely vulnerable experience — for actors, for playwrights, for theaters — because you’re creating something and sharing it,” Feldman says. “And to have that extra level of ‘we’re aware this isn’t even finished yet and we’re letting you in,’ that’s an extreme thing.” Pacino and Light in the lead roles, he says with hope, will draw audiences. “It was sort of like, this would help mitigate our risk of just doing something new, this will be splashy.”

Pacino, 76, launched his career in the theater. He’s a two-time Tony-winner for 1969’s “Does a Tiger Wear a Necktie?” and 1977’s revival of “The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel.” Most recently, he starred in David Mamet’s “China Doll” on Broadway, which received less-than-stellar reviews but was a box office success. “God Looked Away”  will be only his third time gracing the L.A. stage after 1999’s “Hughie” at the Mark Taper Forum and an Estelle Parsons-directed staging of “Salome” in 2006 at the Wadsworth Theatre.

The in-development nature of the production is partly what drew Pacino to the project. 

“It asks us to go into a play and discover it as we go without the pressure of deadlines,” Pacino said via email, “rather just to engage in the play and allow it to evolve. The commitment is really about discovery together with audiences.”   

The production is nothing if not meta: a play about a playwright in a playhouse where, it turns out, Williams premiered early work. The Pasadena Playhouse, which celebrates its 100th anniversary this year, staged the world premieres of Williams’ “You Touched Me” in 1943 and “The Purification” in 1944 as well as the West Coast premiere of “Stairs to the Roof” in 1945 — all during a pivotal period.  “The Glass Menagerie,” Williams’ breakout, opened in 1944. 

“It’s absolutely the place to continue the process of development on this play,” Light says, “a place with such tremendous history where Tennessee Williams produced work.” The experience — which she calls “one of the greatest of my life and career” — is punctuated by Pacino’s commitment to the role, she says. “Sometimes I’ll watch him just turn into Tennessee Williams. His physicality changes as he delves into the character. He becomes him. He’s so in the moment.” 

The big question now is: Will “God Looked Away” head to Broadway after it’s fine-tuned?

“It’s not planned to go anywhere yet,” Ackerman says flatly.

That in-limbo state, however, that creatively messy and unfettered period is exactly the point, Rader says. Staging the play outside of the insular New York theater world and its commercial pressures, in a reviews-free zone and with an uncertain future, has allowed the work to flourish more truly, he says.

“There’s a lot of pressures that being here, you’re essentially protected from,” Rader says of PlayWorks. “You’re able to come to a play that is true, that’s what it’s about.”

All of which parallels themes in the play of creative truth.

“Tennessee brought to the world a lot of truths that no one was able to say,” Rader says. “His plays talked about everything from homosexuality to drug addiction to cannibalism to incest, you name it. He wrote the truth. And hopefully, in some tiny little way, we can do that again, in writing about his life.”

deborah.vankin@latimes.com

Follow me on Twitter: @debvankin

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