Commentary

'God Looked Away,' and so should you: Why Al Pacino's play falls so short of expectations

The reason you haven’t read a review in The Times of “God Looked Away,” the new play by Dotson Rader at the Pasadena Playhouse in which Al Pacino plays Tennessee Williams at the inebriated end of his faltering playwriting career, is that critics haven’t been invited to see the show.

Billed as the theater’s inaugural PlayWorks Development production, “God Looked Away” is still a work in progress. Yet curiously, the play is receiving a full-scale production for a six-week run — with ticket prices that make Broadway touring musicals at the Hollywood Pantages seem like a bargain.

Most theaters that share developing work with their subscribers do so through limited workshop presentations. The idea behind these sneak-peek offerings is to give artists the chance to hear their work before an audience and to encourage that audience to feel more invested in the theater’s artistic life. It’s a tried and true way of turning ticket buyers into patrons.

That’s not what’s going on at the Pasadena Playhouse. The theater, which has been struggling in recent years, has charged more than $200 for some prime seats. The privilege of seeing Pacino portray the aging American playwright in a Demerol haze while pawing shirtless male hustlers as reviewers crucify him for his latest flop doesn't come cheap.

Danny Feldman, the Playhouse’s producing artistic director, talks the usual talk about the “faith and commitment, tenacity and resolution” behind new play development.  But this is in part rhetorical cover for a business arrangement the nonprofit theater has made with a slew of outside producers.

Having now seen “God Looked Away,” I can confirm that the play is unfinished. Not only isn’t it ready for critics but I’m not sure it’s up to the scrutiny of paying customers — at least not at these ludicrous prices.  

I paid $135 for a Saturday matinee ticket that put me at the back of the orchestra — the best seat available for that show. If my employer weren’t picking up the cost of the ticket, you’d be reading this non-review on Yelp.

No, I won’t tell you what I think of Pacino’s Bronx-ified Southern drawl or the way he seems to be wandering about in a fugue state. And please don’t ask me to comment on how Robert Allan Ackerman’s dithering direction compounds the slow-motion tailspins of this two-hour, 45-minute play.

As for Judith Light, who receives star billing, my belief in truth in advertising impels me to tell you that her scenery-chewing turn begins only after we’ve settled back into our seats after intermission. But I beg you not to interrogate me any further on the subject.

What I will state forthrightly and without fear of reprisal is that Rader, the author of “Tennessee: Cry of the Heart,” the colorfully trashy 1985 memoir about the years he lived with Williams during the playwright’s self-described “stoned age,” isn’t being helped by this kind of “developmental” production. What’s needed is a workshop followed by a closed-door meeting followed by months of solitary writing followed by more workshops.  

The play recaps a dark chapter in the life of a great artist without finding a propelling dramatic through line, never mind an artistic vision that could justify this airing of old dirty laundry.

“God Looked Away” seems to be aiming to do to Williams what Peter Quilter’s music drama “End of the Rainbow” did to Judy Garland — milk a luminous talent’s crackup for all its worth. Both works are set in hotel rooms and both deal with geniuses who sabotaged themselves while feeling (not unjustifiably) victimized by fame. “End of the Rainbow” was rudimentary as a play, but Rader doesn’t even have Quilter’s dramatic horse sense.

Scenes from “God Looked Away” wither on the vine instead of flowering into meaningful action. The play is rife with Williams’ flamboyant aphorisms, but the other characters all sound as if they were jobbed in from a daytime soap opera. Rader makes vain attempts to create a Tennessee Williams play about Tennessee Williams, but bookending his drama with overripe monologues isn’t enough to turn “God Looked Away” into “The Glass Menagerie.”

Gore Vidal, in a brutal takedown of “Tennessee: Cry of the Heart” in the New York Review of Books, was turned off by Rader’s “frantic” desire to “tell us the very worst” and his worshipful attitude toward “what to him is plainly the only game on earth or in heaven, Celebrity.” He called the memoir “self-serving,” which is a polite description of the play’s fundamental flaw.

Before becoming a critic, I was a dramaturg, dispensing in-house advice to artistic directors and giving what I hoped were helpful notes to playwrights and directors. Were the creative team for “God Looked Away” open to my input (an unlikely prospect now), I’d ask them to focus their attention on the role of Rader’s surrogate, Baby, (Miles Gaston Villanueva), who is the protagonist in the shadows, the cipher who wants to leave a charismatic impression and the righteous center of a play that finds everyone else guilty as charged.

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The drama is set in 1981, and Williams, who has just turned 70, has long been a punching bag for critics who can’t forgive him for dropping so far below the level of “A Streetcar Named Desire” and “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” Baby, Williams’ companion and caretaker, tries to hold the sodden playwright together as he readies the ramshackle “A House Not Meant to Stand” for its Chicago premiere. If this newest play doesn’t redeem his reputation, he knows he’s through.

The dramatic setup is familiar but not without potential. One can imagine that Rader, no longer surviving on boy toy sex appeal, has a more visceral understanding of the way time, to borrow from Williams’ “Sweet Bird of Youth,” is the enemy in all of us.

But a stranger might have shown more kindness. Rader draws Williams as a dilapidated figure whose acute sensitivity doesn’t prevent him from being at times sadistically selfish. He introduces Baby to intravenous drugs because he wants the company of another addict. He invites in a hustler, Luke (Garrett Clayton), to usurp Baby’s place, though of course no one can usurp Baby’s place because he still has his looks and his heart of gold. Plus, he’s smart and clearly destined to be a writer who will one day inspire Vidal to his vituperative best.  

The play works so strenuously to make Baby seem respectable that it forgets to provide a reason for us to care about him. Knowing that he will one day write a salacious memoir that he will subsequently attempt to mine for dramatic material doesn’t further endear him to us.

The trouble with Williams’ character is that we know he’s beyond saving. Rader’s portrait of the faltering playwright two years before his death, much like the Williams of John Lahr’s psychoanalytic biography, depicts a strung-out mess. All he cares about is his next fix of sex, drugs or success — the three have become more or less interchangeable. If he remains sympathetic it’s because it’s painful to see a legend fall so far. But the plot has about as much suspense as a deathbed vigil. This broken down satyr with a gift for the shimmering line may peck away religiously at his typewriter, but it’s all over except the drinking, drugging and groping.

Death has given Williams no rest. It is unfortunate that the dramatic poet who taught the American theater to lyrically soar is once again being remembered for his dissolute decline rather than for the sublimity of his best writing. The Pasadena Playhouse has organized a set of readings of Williams’ plays around this production, but a better way of honoring the playwright would have been to produce one of his masterpieces or neglected works rather than “developing” this exploitative drivel.

God shouldn’t be chided for looking away. The person next to me nodded off.

charles.mcnulty@latimes.com

Follow me @charlesmcnulty

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