There’s a difference between a show that’s purposefully spare and laid back, and one that’s half-hearted. This semi-staged production of Oscar Wilde’s biblical oddity “Salome,” starring Al Pacino as the perverse and perverted Herod, tilts heavily toward the latter. Yes, Pacino remains fascinating and fun to watch — his off-beat, stylized spontaneity on full display. But in a play that’s supposed to build toward a human train wreck caused by desire, desire is nowhere to be found, or felt.
Wilde wrote “Salome” in French, and it’s crafted in the style of symbolists like Maurice Maeterlinck, filled with evocative images of the moon, and riddled through with rhythmic repetition. Its story involves the reigning Herod, who lusts after his stepdaughter and niece Salome (Jessica Chastain), who in turn has an unquenchable hankering for the imprisoned prophet Jokanaan (Kevin Anderson), otherwise known as John the Baptist.
In Herod, Pacino has found a role in which he can indulge his indulgences, setting the lines to his own, often arrhythmic, musicality. Pacino first played Herod in 1993, and for those who saw it, his performance remains distinctly memorable, the kind of over-the-top, bizarre turn that made you hang on every line, because you never knew quite how long he would relish a word with strange elongations of the vowel sounds and sing-songy flourishes. For that production, he was covered in heavy makeup and dressed in a toga.
His Herod has mellowed considerably, although he still delivers lines with strange rhythms, a melodic flair, and the nearly tired nonchalance of a character accustomed to having his every whim fulfilled. But Pacino has taken a bold choice and gone too far.
Dressed now in casual clothing, including a mystifying pair of sunglasses parked in his plentiful head of hair, Pacino’s Herod now comes off like a man prepared for retirement. It seems he offers Salome half his kingdom for a single dance not because he so craves seeing her body undulate and undress, but because he has nothing better to do with his time.
When Salome turns the tables and demands Jokanaan’s death as her reward, Herod’s alarm at the consequences of his oath just doesn’t carry any dramatic weight. This lackadaisical emptiness pervades the rest of the production, directed by actress Estelle Parsons.
Part of the problem is the very concept of a partial staged reading format. The idea is to strip away the outer shell of production values, but success requires exactitude.
This show, with supporting actors sitting before music stands with scripts on them while the leads have them handy but mostly go without, feels instead like a rehearsal early in the process, caught somewhere between a loose table reading and a technical rehearsal.
It doesn’t help that red-headed Jessica Chastain is so ill-at-ease with Salome, not quite certain whether she’s a capable seductress or a whiny, wealthy brat; she doesn’t flesh out either choice. As Jokanaan, Kevin Anderson is capable but uninteresting; his flash of vanity when he tosses his hair following Salome’s compliment is definitely amusing, but there’s no sense at all that he has built this quality into his characterization.
With an absence of any manifest connection among the characters, the plot itself never generates any momentum, let alone any climaxes. The moments that are supposed to be the most dramatic are the most tedious here, despite the best efforts of onstage composer-musician Yukio Tsuji to add suspense with his percussive underscoring.
The entertainments are found in the interstices, in Pacino’s quirky deliveries within an eccentric play. There are little gems in the way he takes Wilde’s repetitions (“Ah, I have slipped,” says Herod. “I have slipped in blood. It is an ill omen. It is a very ill omen.”) and infuses each new sentence with a completely new spin.
This “Salome” delivers clever line readings, but not much else.