NEW YORK — There was a time, not so long ago, when Al Pacino was a regular presence in New York theater. From the 1970s through much of the ‘90s, theatergoers could see him on and Off-Broadway, pummeling his way through gritty urban plays and taking on some of Shakespeare’s most formidable characters with riveting discipline, equally mesmerizing eccentricities and the poetic meter of the South Bronx.
He could be possessed, mannered, sly, smart and genuinely weird. What he was not, ever, was boring.
So there is more than the usual star-giddy curiosity surrounding Pacino’s much-anticipated return to the New York stage for the first time in seven years. The object of his obsession this summer in Central Park is nothing less than Shylock and the hot-button ethical dilemmas in “The Merchant of Venice,” which he already explored in the 2004 movie with Jeremy Irons and Joseph Fiennes. (The production alternates in company repertory with “The Winter’s Tale” in the Public Theater’s free Shakespeare in the Park through Aug. 1.)
Movie actors have always given lip service to live theater. Pacino, 70, always put his mania where his mouth was.
The Bronx kid from a broken home dropped out of the High School of Performing Arts, knocked around downtown in the off-off-Broadway ‘60s heyday and was practically adopted by Actors Studio guru Lee Strasberg. I wasn’t around for Pacino’s Obie-winning breakthrough as a racist thug in “The Indian Wants the Bronx” in 1968 or, the following year, for his Tony-winning performance as a carnivorous drugged-out teen in “Does a Tiger Wear a Necktie?”
But I did see most of his other stage work: his stunning 1977 Tony-winning performance as the inarticulate soldier in David Rabe’s “The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel,” his slobbering Igor of a monster king Off-Broadway, to David Mamet’s “American Buffalo” through a memorable chunk of the ‘80s. He played Teach, a small-time scam artist who weasels himself into a petty heist. He prowled, he preened, he exploded energy into a staccato of small-time big talk. The role belonged to him — until Dustin Hoffman got the movie.
In the ridiculous (except for him) “Julius Caesar” at Joseph Papp’s Public in 1988, Pacino spit when he hollered, which was often, and pounded the air with his ham-hock arms like a Corleone who had been crossed. He was crazy-eyed, possessed, overdone — but never dull.
Throughout the decades, he has attached himself to a handful of plays as if he were a pit bull on an ankle. One of the bones he chewed on for years is Oscar Wilde’s virtually unstageable 1892 “Salome,” which he attempted here as a fully staged, truly weird and deadly serious extravaganza in 1992 and again as a stripped-down version (with Marisa Tomei as the teen princess who drops her seven veils) in 2003.
A reasonable spirit would have given it up. But Pacino, who had similarly stalked “Richard III” (see his 1996 documentary “Looking for Richard”), first played Herod as a biblical Klingon, then evolved closer to the hilarious, scary underboss he played in “Dick Tracy.” Of course, it was possible to tire of his loopy mannerisms, his way of bellowing “Whaaar is Saahl-o-may?” in the overheated story.
And yet there has always been something deeply touching about this actor’s belief in the theater, his need to keep picking at the scabs of a character until we see beneath the eccentricities. He did this with Brecht’s “The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui,” which his great friend Papp let him study in a long-term workshop while Pacino was filming “Dog Day Afternoon.” The results, finally staged here in 2002 with John Goodman and Steve Buscemi, were both haunting and a hoot.
For much of the ‘70s, Pacino did the same with “The Local Stigmatic,” a brutal play by British playwright Heathcote Williams about thugs who beat up an aging actor just because he was famous. The results are part of a 2007 three-film box set, “Pacino: An Actor’s Vision,” which includes “Looking for Richard” and another odd obsession, “Chinese Coffee,” a slim New York serio-comedy by Ira Lewis about a couple of middle-aged Jewish underachievers.
It is an altogether different Jew who dominates Pacino in Central Park these evenings. Shylock, of course, is one of the great humanist dilemmas in classic literature — a Jew who functions both as a stock villain in a romantic comedy and as a real person who bleeds when pricked by bigotry.
Director Daniel Sullivan is in charge of finding the balance between the lyrical lives of the Venetians and their cruelty to the Jewish moneylender. Lily Rabe (daughter of David Rabe, who wrote “Pavlo Hummel,” and actress Jill Clayburgh, who was Pacino’s girlfriend in the early ‘70s) plays Portia, the heiress whose disguise as a male lawyer saves the day. A company of 20, including Jesse L. Martin, will appear in both this and Michael Greif’s staging of “The Winter’s Tale.”
Pacino has been nominated eight times for Oscars — including the first two “Godfather” films (but mysteriously not the third) and “Serpico.” Starting with “The Panic in Needle Park” in 1971, he created a succession of not-pretty New York characters that are among the worthiest contributions to urban fiction. When he finally won his Oscar, it was for the sentimental slop of “Scent of a Woman” in 1992.
Movies have been disappointing in recent years, but Pacino was spectacular as Roy Cohn in “Angels in America” and unrecognizably brilliant this year as Jack Kevorkian in “You Don’t Know Jack” — both on HBO.
In 1979, Papp, founder of the Public, was already defending the usefulness of stars in building audiences for Shakespeare. “When Al Pacino plays ‘Richard III,”” he said, “99 percent of the audience comes to see Al Pacino. They don’t care about ‘Richard III.’ But they find themselves watching him and, suddenly, they are kind of moved.”
And in 1989, just before “Sea of Love” recharged his career after unproductive years and forgettable films, Pacino told the Los Angeles Times: “You know, I wish, in some ways, the government forced me to make a movie once a year.” I’d vote for legislation to bring him back to the theater for good.