With its highly perfumed language and lurid subject matter, Oscar Wilde’s “Salome” is nothing if not exotic. Indeed, if it’s not exotic, it’s nothing –merely silly. And a little silliness and a lot of nothing is precisely what’s onstage at Broadway’s Ethel Barrymore Theater, masquerading as an informal production of Wilde’s play. Despite the intriguing, starry cast headed by Al Pacino — or maybe because of it — this peculiar presentation, denoted “Salome: The Reading” with equal parts accuracy and pretension, manages to travesty the play without going to the trouble of staging it. That’s an achievement of some kind, certainly, although it’s not one worth paying $85 to witness.
The evening takes what tone it has from Pacino’s Herod, the tetrarch in old Judea whose lust for his nubile young stepdaughter has unfortunate consequences for John the Baptist. The performance could charitably be called eccentric, but it’s more to the point to say it’s simply dreadful. “When did Al Pacino turn into Jerry Lewis?” asked my understandably stunned guest as we scurried up the aisle. Indeed, the odd, high-pitched whinny Pacino affects recalls that comedian’s singular nasal screech, and his approach to Wilde’s ornate dialogue is, uh, irreverent.
Slouched in his throne, mouth agape, Pacino plays Herod like one of his corrupt-to-the-marrow gangsters on the verge of overdosing on painkillers. In his interpretation, Wilde’s deliberately incantatory phrasing sounds like the confused regurgitations of a man with serious mental deficiencies. Many of his deadpan line readings, which owe more to Borscht Belt comedians than to Wilde, inspire mirth in the audience. I, too, would applaud Pacino’s bold comic approach to the role, if it were not for the inconvenient fact that “Salome” is manifestly — even spectacularly! — not a comedy.
It’s true that Wilde was the preeminent wit of the late Victorian era, and the author of probably the funniest play in the English language. “Salome” ain’t that play. It is, on the contrary, Wilde’s earnestly humorless attempt to write the kind of heightened, poetic tragedy in which Maeterlinck specialized. Wilde wrote it (in French) for Sarah Bernhardt — not, I hardly need add, the Lucille Ball of her age. You don’t have to have any particular affection or esteem for the play to question the propriety — or the point — of presenting it with such blatant disregard for its essential qualities.
Pacino aside, most of the cast do seem to be taking their roles seriously. But Marisa Tomei’s petulant Salome still inspires titters rather than rapt fascination. Her inflections are strictly contemporary. When Salome enters, whining about the “Greeks from Smyrna with painted eyes and painted cheeks” and the dreary old Romans, “with their uncouth jargon,” she sounds more like a prematurely jaded veteran of the current New York bar scene than a princess from biblical days. She could be Paris Hilton, fleeing a B-list party in disgust.
And guffaws regularly arise during the long speeches in which Salome vacillates between rhapsody and revulsion while anatomizing Jokanaan’s physical allure: “I love not thy hair … it is thy mouth I desire, Jokanaan.” (Yeah, that’s it!) Tomei is a talented actress, and she’s clearly determined to act her belly button off — and dance it off, too, in a multiethnic dance of the seven veils done without any veils — but her naturalistic style makes a ludicrous hash of Wilde’s heightened, lyrical writing. (Celebrity skin watchers will want to know that at certain performances Tomei has been known to shed several layers of clothing, depending on the inspiration of the moment, apparently.)
David Strathairn’s Jokanaan (John the B.) is stuck down in that cistern for much of the play, lucky for him, but he gives a creditable account of Jokanaan’s occasional pronouncements, a tedious string of admonitions and prophecies of doom. Most commendably, Dianne Wiest, as Herodias, manages to give a persuasive interpretation of her character in this notably unpersuasive environment.
It helps that Herodias is the one character in the play who actually does evince a sly sense of humor, so the occasional gleams of irony in Wiest’s turn are entirely appropriate. But she also communicates the character’s regal authority, her seething disgust at her husband’s lecherous ogling of her daughter (even if it’s hard to believe Pacino’s glassy-eyed Herod could work up the energy to ravish her) and the bloodlust that soothes Herodias’ outraged pride. In a more coherently conceived production, Wiest’s Herodias’ would be a formidable presence.
The actors perform in contemporary attire vaguely appropriate to their characters’ positions and personalities, with the texts in front of them on music stands — although it’s clear that most have memorized at least large portions of their dialogue. This is, in theory, a defensible approach. (The play is naturally static — and probably found its proper destiny, thanks to Richard Strauss, on the operatic stage.) But accentuating the text, as such a presentation naturally does, is only defensible if it brings revelations. In this case it’s more a matter of distortions. Instead of allowing Wilde’s play to weave its very particular spell, Pacino and director Estelle Parsons work against it, seeking to interpret it in a style that is alien to its essence. Have they lost their heads?