To put it as simply as possible, Jonathan Pryce is absolutely pryceless, and though there are five other actors in "Accidental Death of an Anarchist," they all function as straight men to the star, who is giving a manic performance unmatched in comic delight since the days of the great stage comedians.
Dario Fo's farce, adapted and brought up to date with several topical references by Richard Nelson, is a broad swipe at bureaucracy in general and at the judicial system in particular. An alleged anarchist has fallen, leaped, or been pushed to his death from an upper window of Rome's police headquarters. Enter a madman (Pryce) who, in short order, throws officialdom into a state of shock and complete disorder as, one by one, he assumes the roles of an investigating judge, a police lab specialist and a bishop.
In a work that is almost pure commedia dell'arte directed toward sharp social satire, Pryce performs with a command and versatility that makes one suppose he emerged as the star pupil from "Comedians," that bitter play about a class for stand-up comics in which we last saw Pryce, then a newcomer, eight years back.
In the first half, as his loony self and then impersonating a white-wigged judge, he is a mercurial combination of Groucho Marx and Irwin Corey as, with an awesome display of energy and articulateness, he routs a police sergeant (Bill Irwin), an inspector (Gerry Bamman) and a captain (Joe Grifasi).
He is even more uproarious in the second half when, playing the lab expert with a wooden hand, wooden leg, eye patch and touseled hair, he uses a visiting reporter (Patti LuPone) to undermine the credibility of the police chief as well, in the fabricated report on the anarchist's fate. He then proceeds, with ever-mounting enthusiasm, to make a mockery of the social order ("We are a people rich in resources, and our greatest resources are the rich people"), and then of the embarrassing off-the-record comments made during our recent presidential campaign, and of a slumberous presidential address whose homilies have the speaker himself nodding off.
This and all other such topical references, such as one about "balancing the deficit," are revue material, which could be changed from week to week. But the comic core of Fo's play is sound and immutable, so that the evening as a whole is a majestically funny event about deadly serious matters. And as the Fool (Pryce) slips off at the end, his consummate bishop impersonation exposed after benedictions have been scattered, he seems to drain the police office of fresh air.
It is impossible for me to imagine any of Pryce's predecessors (the play has been widely seen in Europe and was performed earlier this year at Washington's Arena Stage) coming anywhere near his masterly account of the Fool. Bamman as the inspector, Irwin as the sergeant, Grifasi as the captain, Raymond Serra as the chief, and a smartly attired LuPone are all perfectly adequate as Pryce's essential pawns, but this is as much a solo show as Whoopi Goldberg's in the next block. But even more brilliant, leaving one gasping at the end.
Jonathan Pryce is a comic actor of genius - of crazy sorts. Cheekily he dominates the American version of Dario Fo's wild, fierce and wandering political satire, Accidental Death of an Anarchist, which opened last night at the Belasco.
Pryce was last seen on Broadway in a Tony Award-winning performance in Comedians eight years ago, and this RSC actor is as scathing, as manic, as controlled, as memory-etchable here as there. He is that rare thing, a unique actor, a character beyond characterization. He commands the stage as if steering a chariot, while controlling a play as if it were merely a team of horses. In Accidental Death he has found a very suitable play to control. It is scarcely his fault that it is essentially uncontrollable.
Fo is among Europe's most admired and performed playwrights, not simply in his native Italy, but all over Europe.
Even so I suspect he loses a great deal in translation, because although his plays always seem to have a fine zany core to them, and even some fizzily fervent political ideas, in English they fail as consistently effective plays. They amuse in fragments, their humors never coalescing into any comic vision.
In Accidental Death, Fo's most celebrated play, the playwright has taken an actual case in Milan in which a railway worker, accused of terrorism, jumped or was thrown to his death from an upper floor window of a police station. A character called The Fool, apparently a lunatic with a taste for histrionic impersonation - what he himself calls "real-life acting" - enters the police station ostensibly to reopen the investigation of how the so-called anarchist actually died.
Quicker than he can change personalities or costumes, the Fool is knee-deep in the cover-up of lunatic officialdom, wading and weaving his way through that mad, mad world in a quest for truth with the police and, eventually, with an investigative woman reporter.
Pryce devises a shrewd mixture of Stan Laurel and Groucho Marx and it proves a match-winning combination. As the play proceeds on its merrily willful way, he switches like a chameleon, from greeting-card salesman to investigative judge to a Dr. Strangelove-like police scientist to a Vatican priest, hardly ever off stage and pushing jokes as if they were dope and the audience junkies.
The translator and adaptor here is Richard Nelson, who performed these same functions when the play had its American premiere earlier this year at Washington's Arena Stage. Fo permits his adaptors wide latitude and encourages them to include local topical jokes. So here we have a plethora of Reagan gibes, from the celebrated "just testing" joke upwards.
For all this, and his contorted Monty Python writhings, Nelson has failed to produce a version as nuttily funny as the markedly different London version - apparently, it must be added, virtually disowned by Fo - prepared and acted by a bizarre Gavin Richards. In comparison, this New York production is almost sedate, and it is a sedateness - apart from the priceless Pryce - in which the Washington director, Douglas C. Wager, appears to conspire.
A group of good American character actors - such as Patti LuPone and Joe Grifasi - are left as polite second bananas to Pryce's irresistible burlesque skid, and this is perhaps merely the most obvious mistake that Nelson and Wager have made in permitting this satire to be a one-man show with scenery. The scenery that was not the actors was, by the way, provided by Karl Eigsti who, after offering a brilliant newspaper front-cloth, seemed to run out of inspiration.
This is not so much a play by Fo - or by anyone else - as a performance by Pryce and, as such, indeed worth the price. He is unforgettable and unstoppable in this slashing portrait of the comedian as a oral force, the actor as an anarchist. The play is his graffito, daringly sketched in blood. If you have ever hoped to see an actor going the whole hog - do not miss Pryce.
Tomorrow night he should give us his Hamlet. Then alternate.
Until the State Department at last lifted its ban and granted him a visa this month, the leftist Italian playwright Dario Fo was deemed too incendiary to be admitted into the United States. Theatergoers who now visit the first Broadway production of a Fo work, ''Accidental Death of an Anarchist,'' can't be blamed if they wonder what all the fuss was about. The farce at the Belasco is considerably less biting than the average David Letterman monologue and not nearly as funny.
This is an evening of strained silliness that defies even the herculean, high-flying efforts of its star, the gifted English actor Jonathan Pryce, to galvanize it. Mr. Pryce, a perfect- pitch mimic, often seems to be playing all the Marx Brothers at once: Every time there's a lull in the proceedings - which is to say during all of Act I and most of Act II - he will instantaneously try on a new wig, accent, costume and nutty personality. Mr. Pryce's talent and ingenuity are boundless, yet his performance, like everything else, leaves us more exhausted than amused. You have to be a comic genius, not merely a terrific actor, to get laughs without material.
Mr. Fo's play was inspired by an unsavory incident that actually happened in Milan in 1969. An anarchist train worker, charged in a terrorist bombing, mysteriously fell to his death from a window at the police headquarters where he was in custody. The anarchist's defenestration may have been an accident or a suicide - or, just possibly, an officially sanctioned murder designed to cover up the Government's own malevolent role in the bombing.
Mr. Pryce plays a lunatic confidence man, known only as ''The Fool,'' who visits the site of the anarchist's fall. Described as a ''histrio-maniac,'' this Fool is a brilliant quick-change impostor: By impersonating a variety of characters, including a high-level judicial authority and a bishop, he tricks the addled police into reopening the anarchist's case and revealing all the doctored transcripts, false alibis and undercover schemes that attended it.
Because the real truth is apparent early on - the civil servants on view are all power-greedy fascists - it's hard to get too excited about The Fool's painfully slow-starting investigation. ''Accidental Death'' rises or falls on the jokes that attend Mr. Pryce's various ruses. Many of the gags are leaden Monty Python knockoffs of an apolitical nature. The bigger knee-slappers include a line about ''nitroglycerine suppositories,'' references to the menstrual cycle and a long sequence featuring a misplaced glass eye.
It's possible that not all of these comic inventions are Mr. Fo's own - and that his native, populist theatrical style has been sanitized for New York consumption. The Broadway ''Accidental Death'' isn't a strict translation of Mr. Fo's script or a transplant of the hit 1979 London version (which I didn't see), but a new adaptation written by the American playwright Richard Nelson last season for Washington's Arena Stage.
Whatever else he may have done, Mr. Nelson is surely responsible for the many American jokes that are inserted willy-nilly throughout. While the play's improvisational style can certainly accommodate such interjections, Mr. Nelson's contributions are unsophisticated and out-of-date. The butts of his topical one-liners include television game shows, money-market accounts, Mobil Oil Corporation grants and, I kid you not, ''Whip Inflation Now'' buttons. There are also so many obsolete digs at Ronald Reagan's campaign gaffes that one wonders if Mr. Nelson is aware that the election has already been held.
The innocuous American jokes don't blend into the play's Italian context - or illustrate any trenchant connections between American and Italian political nefariousness. What they mainly do is wreck the play's farcical structure and jolt both audience and cast out of its intended grip. Nor does either the author or the adaptor use satire to shake up the audience. Mr. Fo takes a strong stand against political corruption and hypocrisy - and who is going to disagree with him? Mr. Nelson pulls punches, picks safe targets and never risks offending anyone. Even his wisecracks about the President are rarely tougher than those Mr. Reagan has made about himself.
The frantic, often inelegantly executed slapstick bits were presumably devised by the director, Douglas C. Wager. The characters repeatedly stamp on one another's feet, and, when all else fails, don women's wigs and march around singing, ''Look for the union label.'' Yet, for all these shenanigans, the director never figures out how to use the clown Bill Irwin, who plays one of the Milanese policemen. Why cast Mr. Irwin, the most accomplished physical comic our theater has produced in years, and then give him virtually nothing to do?
The other officials are competently played by Gerry Bamman, Joe Grifasi and Raymond Serra. For reasons that seem as baffling to her as they are to us, Patti LuPone drops by for a thankless cameo appearance after intermission. ''Accidental Death'' is always Mr. Pryce's show, and from his charming opening monologue to his climactic appearance in an array of prosthetic devices, he never stops working to make us merry. Were anyone to try to revoke his visa, I'd make a Federal case of it.