Dustin Hoffman plays himself
by Clive Barnes
One day, Dustin Hoffman will undoubtedly get a play worthy of his enormous talents. It did not happen at the Brooks Atkinson Theater where Hoffman made his Broadway debut in Murray Schisgal’s “Jimmy Shine,” but the enormous talents were well to the fore.
Hoffman — and I think I had better concentrate first on him rather than Schisgal — has the strange ability to be himself on stage. Or at least if that is not himself he is playing, or at least some aspect of himself, he must be so unnaturally talented that he is practically monstrous.
For some months now, advertisements have been assuring us that “Dustin Hoffman is Jimmy Shine,” and for once the advertisements are so right. Hoffman takes the play, what little there is of it, and waltzes right away with it, nimbly, deftly and so convincingly that you are so fascinated with the performance you scarcely have time to realize the slender play it is being lavished upon.
Jimmy Shine is an abstract painter. In fact, he appears to have taken painting to its irreducible abstraction of virtual nothingness. He is a failure. He is a failure as a student, as an artist, as a lover and as a hippie.
He is the kind of man who unwittingly reforms nymphomaniacs and is chased trouserless from his first attempt to lose his virginity by the lady’s husband. His paintings do not sell and his attempts to make a secondary career in the retail fish industry are understandably frustrated by his inability to see fish have their heads cut off.
And that is that. There are secondary characters. The old buddy-buddy school chum who persuades Jimmy to take up painting in the first place, and himself goes on to fortunes in real estate in the second. There is the girl he loves but who affects him so viscerally that he can never tell her, and the other girl who loves him but believes in putting marriage in front of bed. Then there is the friendly little whore who comforts him — as far as possible — on his failure.
All in all it is not so much a play as an amusingly drawn caricature with background shading. For even with Jimmy eccentricity seems to have the place of character, and oddly the place of blood.
Schisgal has cast his play as a Sunday morning in Jimmy’s Greenwich Village loft with suitable fantasy excursions into the past, presumably intended to show us how Jimmy got the way he is.
But as it soon becomes apparent that lovable little Jimmy always was the way he is, the dramatic effect soon becomes more one of a series of episodic sketches — some quite funny and all of them suitably exploiting Hoffman’s skills — than the developing structure of the play. And this episodic feeling is emphasized by the introduction of a few songs and dances, all of them with music and lyrics composed in a bright, show-biz Pastiche style by John Sebastian.
Pastiche is one of the keys to Hoffman’s own richly enjoyable performance. He is clearly most himself when he is pretending to be somebody else. He pretends he is Groucho Marx with a leering doubletake, impertinent cigar and that collapsed walk that suggests a vital muscle has given way but there is still no cause for alarm. Or another time his voice will rasp like Durante’s, assertive and cocky, or else it will take on the mellow, whisky-honeyed tones of WC Fields. You feel that even if he ever did make out with a girl he would instantly start playing Bogart.
In all of this Hoffman slides in and out of his fantasies and characters as elusive as eel, as bright as a hamster. He seems to look at the world with all the uncertain security of the gifted drop-out. There he is, most of the time gleamingly inarticulate and yet still possessed of that wayward intelligence.
He shambles Chaplinesque across the stage, or else tears into a dance routine with tin cans tied to his feet and Gene Kelly in his heart. He dreams. But not really of fame and fortune, but merely of comfortable adequacy. Most of all he is self-reliant, for failure has brought its own rewards.
The interest of Hoffman’s particular performance is largely to be found in that it seems to be an image, even a projection of much of contemporary youth. He can take a not very well written part in a very slight play and make some kind of symbol out of it. This is no small achievement — or perhaps it is. Perhaps Dustin Hoffman really is Jimmy Shine.