September 20, 1996 at 04:00 AM EDT

Keanu Reeves shadowboxes in the hallway three stories below Broadway, beneath Circle in the Square’s underground stage, outside the tiny dressing room where Al Pacino is holding court. Showbiz types are gushing over Pacino’s performance in the Eugene O’Neill drama Hughie, and Reeves pops through the door every so often to join in. Meanwhile, the target of all these accolades stands, happily fatigued, wearing a rumpled green linen suit, stage makeup, and stubble. Though Pacino’s visitors are enthusiastic, they respectfully keep to the doorway: No one penetrates his retreat.

And this is a real retreat for Pacino. Why else would a film actor of this caliber, with a 28-year movie career, seven Academy Award nominations, one Best Actor Oscar (for 1992’s Scent of a Woman), and a $9 million-per-film asking price, come back to his New York theatrical roots at least once every four years? Indeed, the two-character, one-act Hughie, which is scheduled to run until Oct. 9 after 11 weeks of previews and performances, seems a little like a metaphor for the star’s career at the moment. Directing himself for the first time on Broadway, Pacino portrays jinxed gambler Erie Smith, who returns to the hotel where the deceased night clerk, Hughie, always gave him comfort and confidence. Though Hughie’s replacement (Paul Benedict) at first can’t be bothered to pay attention, the two construct the beginnings of a friendship, and Erie begins to feel hopeful again.

Like Erie, Pacino, 56, is not as lucky as he once was. Although he works constantly, many critics have called his recent characterizations mannered, overwrought, predictable. TIME’S Richard Corliss wondered, ”Is he a failed great actor or a great bad one?” His film choices have often been, to put it charitably, unwise (take last year’s Two Bits — please); his biggest hit since Scent of a Woman was last year’s Heat, which grossed a relatively modest $67 million.

”Pretty much all the things I find interesting to do for myself come out of the theater,” Pacino says earnestly. Why? Pacino rolls his head counterclockwise, briefly considering the ceiling, and talks about depth. The plays are profound, he says, and there is a deep communion between live actors and their audience. ”With the theater, you know why you’re there. You’re not looking up at a big screen and just wanting to get away; you’re there to get there…to find out something or have an experience of some kind.” He cites the Living Theatre, New York’s Off Broadway troupe of the 1960s, as a prime example: ”They had that ability to transform your perspective. And that’s kind of a religious experience.”

Clearly, Pacino is still a believer in that religion. After being an acolyte of the Living Theatre as a young actor, he was blessed with an Obie, in 1968, and two Tonys, in ’69 and ’77; he was anointed a high priest when he served as co-artistic director of the Actors Studio from 1982 to 1984. But because of the demands of his film career, in the past 16 years he has appeared on the New York-area stage only a handful of times.

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