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Vittorio Gassman: master of the great game called theater

Viva Vittorio! Selections from theater and literature. Conceived and directed by Vittorio Gassman. Starring Mr. Gassman.

''We that live to please, must please to live.''

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Dr. Samuel Johnson said it. Vittorio Gassman demonstrates it with artistry, eloquence, fire, and wit in ''Viva Vittorio!'' The Gassman exercise in literature and histrionics has come to the Promenade Theatre for a brief engagement (ending Sept. 30). In a dazzling display of versatility, the Italian star fulfills the program's claim that this miscellaneous enter-tainment ''is more than a celebration of the actor's art, it is an exploration of the transforming magic that is theater.''

Mr. Gassman uses the actor's ways and means - a supple and commanding voice, arresting figure, variety and volatility - to engage the audience in the theater's great game of let's pretend. The rules of make-believe are strict but extremely open to many approaches and applications. Basic to them all is artistic integrity - a constant in the unwritten contract between actor and spectator - that prevents the legitimate uses of illusion from degenerating into mere confidence tricks. As Mr. Gassman writes in the illuminating and handsomely illustrated souvenir program:

''My show contains a generous dose of game-playing, both of irony and of self-irony; the actor I impersonate ... knows the importance of the game but has the good sense not to take himself too seriously.''

In some respects, ''Viva Vittorio!'' is a distillation of life in the theater for this Italian veteran, who has appeared in 94 films as well as 104 theatrical productions in several languages and many countries. The offering at the Promenade marks the first time Mr. Gassman has acted on stage in English. For the one-act play, Luigi Pirandello's darkly ironic ''The Man With the Flower in His Mouth,'' he turns to Italian, ''in due homage,'' says Gassman, ''to our greatest modern playwright.''

Mr. Gassman's stated aim of breaking down the barriers of language with universal themes is apparent throughout the performance. If he is striving to please (and all genuine actors are), he conceals it with a spontaneous readiness to communicate. It is not simply a case of addressing the audience directly, which he does. The achievement lies rather in the seasoned actor's capacity to embrace an audience.

In purely theatrical terms, this capacity is exercised most specifically in the tour de force that ends the program. ''On the Harmfulness of Theatre,'' by Luciano Codignola, anatomizes the farewell performance of a 75-year-old thespian who, as he admits, has been retiring for the past five years. According to the author, the battered veteran is ''a little pathetic and a bit of a ham.'' Whether he is a fool or a fraud, a genuine artist or a ''first-rate con artist'' remains one of the play's mysteries.

Mr. Gassman plays out the mystery for all it's worth as the ancient actor recovers from a hangover and then struggles to prepare himself for the performance ahead. ''On the Harmfulness of Theatre'' digs into trunkfuls of costumes and wigs, parts and play scripts - Shakespeare, Chekhov, Brecht, etc. - as the actor relives his professional career. Meanwhile, two harried dressers periodically attempt to gear him for his latest - but not necessarily last - effort to please the public. The monologue includes a fascinating chalk talk on the relationship shared by actor and audience and a flying somersault which Mr. Gassman executes with dashing grace.

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The program opens with Franz Kafka's sardonic ''A Report to the Academy,'' in which a pathetically ludicrous ape-turned-man describes his ignobling encounter with ''civilization.'' In fragments from ''Kean,'' Jean-Paul Sartre's adaptation of the Alexandre Dumas play, the great tragedian parades his flair, flamboyance, and vulgarity as he interviews a naive but spunky young stage aspirant (Rhonda Aldrich). ''The Man With the Flower in His Mouth,'' preceded by a brief English summary, proves a worthy sampling of Pirandello - intense and bleakly touching.

The production has been sparely but effectively designed by John De Santis. Fiorenzo Carpi composed the incidental music. Neil Bagg and Nino Prester play the occasional roles that are an essential part of this memorable occasion.

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