If I had to make a list of classic plays that should be seen more often in New York, Oscar Wilde's "Salome" would not be on it. In fact, with the opening of the grandiosely titled "Oscar Wilde's Salome: The Reading," it shoots to the top of my list of classics we see too often. (Wilde's masterpiece, "The Importance of Being Earnest," on the other hand, has not been done on Broadway in 26 years.) The only reason "Salome" has been done twice in 11 years is that its star, Al Pacino, seems to relish playing Herod. He did it in 1992 in full costume at Circle in the Square. Now, it is being presented in quasi-modern dress with the actors able to rely on scripts, though they seldom do. That Pacino is a great actor is indisputable. That he is not suited to playing Herod may be equally true. Pacino represents an interpretation of Stanislavsky that stresses emotional verity above everything else, which was useful in tackling writers such as Williams, Miller and O'Neill. Oscar Wilde wrote an entirely different kind of play, and "Salome" is not even characteristic of his work. It is not social satire, though it shares with his better plays a delectable sense of language. The play retells the biblical story of the girl who, in exchange for dancing for her lascivious stepfather, demands the head of John the Baptist on a silver platter, and it reeks of estheticism. Wilde himself compared it to "a piece of music."
Emotional verity is not as important as style in presenting "Salome," which, though it lacks wit, does have a weird, mesmerizing poetry, almost none of which is apparent here. Pacino has a high-pitched, nasal tenor voice. Sometimes, when he has done Shakespeare, he has made it musical. But here it is deliberately grating and whiny, as if Herod was a Bronx janitor rather than a king. In films, Pacino is always more impressive when he reins in his abundant emotions than when, as here, he lets it all hang out. His costume consists of a way-too-loose tuxedo jacket over a floral vest, an open-collared black satin shirt and baggy pants, reinforcing the sense of a bug-eyed maniac rather than a king desperately trying to retain control over his lustful stepdaughter and his own raging libido. (Interestingly, Wilde wrote the play a few months after meeting Lord Douglas, who proved his own legal and emotional undoing.) In the title role, Marisa Tomei is costumed as if her character was a streetwalker (Jane Greenwood is billed as costume consultant, rather than designer). Tomei plays Salome with a taunting shrillness, except for an earnest reading of a long monologue. She dances provocatively. David Strathairn is creditable as Jokanaan, whose head Salome demands. Dianne Wiest captures the imperiousness of Herod's wife brilliantly. There is effective background music by Yukio Tsuji, and Howard Thies' lighting adds to the drama. But with a hodgepodge of largely flat voices and harsh accents, the music Wilde composed gets sadly shortchanged.
The nice thing about being Al Pacino is that on Broadway - or just about anywhere there's a theater - you can do what you like.
But after seeing his latest show, "Salome - The Reading," I had to wonder why he chose it.
This production - where the actors carry around scripts - started as a workshop at the Actors' Studio, was performed in Brooklyn and Poughkeepsie, N.Y., before opening here last night after two weeks of previews.
So you might well wonder when Pacino and co. are finally going to learn their lines.
Why not a fully staged "Salome"? For that matter, why stage "Salome" at all?
Wilde's 1896 play, inspired by the Salome paintings of Gustave Moreau and written for Sarah Bernhardt (who very sensibly never played it), is extraordinarily bad.
For me it comes to life only in Richard Strauss' great operatic version.
Pacino doesn't have the advantage of Strauss' music, but he's still the best Herod I've encountered.
Of course, Pacino could read the Congressional Record and make it sound fantastic (please, Al, I'm only joking), and he has an affinity for Herod, the weak, cruel despot who lusts after his willful step-daughter, Salome.
Pacino has played Herod before, and this new Herod is far more exaggerated - more decadent, more obscenely caricatured and, yes, more whiningly, imperiously effective.
But despite his bravura high-wire act (just listen to his perverse listing of all the jewels he'll offer Salome if she'll stop demanding John the Baptist's head), he's virtually alone.
Director Estelle Parsons has done little by way of staging - it seems more like chair arrangement than anything else - and the scenery and costumes almost suggest a high school performance.
And the cast isn't much more than adequate.
Marisa Tomei, as a sexpot Salome, substitutes an abdominally virtuosic belly dance for the dance of the seven veils, while David Strathairn produces a gaunt nobility as John.
As Herod's wife, Dianne Wiest seems oddly detached, like someone who signed on for a production before realizing how small the part was.
Yet to see Pacino in full flight is worthwhile. Earlier in the season, he starred in an off-Broadway production of Brecht's "Arturo Ui." It was by no means perfect, but I wouldn't have missed it.
There's not one veil in sight, let alone seven. But for once, Salome's mythic dance is effective in exactly the right way: sexy as all get-out and thoroughly demoralizing.
It is hard not to identify with that old lecher who's been watching her, frozen, through a haze of red light, looking like the ultimate tired businessman. ''Wonderful,'' he says proprietarily, with a Yiddish lilt, at the dance's conclusion. But you can tell this voyeuristic episode has taken a lot out of him.
The old lecher is a king, Herod by name. And in the smashing new production of Oscar Wilde's ''Salome,'' which opened last night at the Ethel Barrymore Theater, Herod is portrayed by Al Pacino, a specialist in thugs at the top, as a soul encased in the armor of jadedness that comes from years of exercising ruthless power. He is also, however, a man who can be betrayed into visible discomfort, at least momentarily, by his own appetites.
As for the princess Salome, she is played by another Oscar winner, Marisa Tomei, as an untouched Lolita just beginning to appreciate the power she commands over men. When she dances, she begins self-consciously, experimentally undulating her thighs and exposed midriff. Then by degrees, she succumbs to a gyrating, autoerotic frenzy that chills even as it generates heat.
Toward the end of preview performances, Ms. Tomei was reported to be so caught up in the moment that she tore off the top of her costume. This didn't happen when I saw the show, but it wasn't necessary. You still had a feeling that this was something you perhaps had no right to be watching. Which is entirely appropriate to a play in which people are forever admonishing one another not to look at the objects of their desire. And in which it is said that what is seen in the mirror may be the only image to be trusted.
''Salome: The Reading,'' directed by Estelle Parsons, was developed at the Actors Studio and previously staged in Brooklyn and Poughkeepsie, N.Y. The version that opened last night, which also stars David Strathairn and Dianne Wiest, shows the careful collaboration and textual excavation associated with the venerable studio.
But theatergoers expecting 110 minutes of teeth-gritting kitchen-sink naturalism -- in the manner of famous studio graduates like Brando, De Niro and (yes) Pacino -- are in for a shock. What Ms. Parsons and company have devised is a strange, shrewdly stylized interpretation of Wilde's densely lyrical text that would seem more suitable to an experimental theater downtown than to Broadway, where plays often look and feel the way they did 50 years ago.
But while the cast members of ''Salome'' may not be going for strictly lifelike effects, they're not stinting on feeling. Transforming the play's biblical royals, toadies and men of religion into gargoyles of contemporary archetypes, they find both a scary emotional intensity and a pitch-black sense of humor. In doing so, they make Wilde's most arcane theatrical work feel as luridly immediate as this morning's tabloids.
Written originally in French in 1891, with the idea of Sarah Bernhardt in the title role, ''Salome'' is by far the hardest of Wilde's plays to bring to credible life. He was then besotted with French Symbolist poetry, and ''Salome'' is more than anything a chain of glittering images and metaphors that reflect off one another. (Wilde's less than realistic approach to staging is summed up by his suggestion that there be perfume-dispensing censers in the orchestra pit to signal changes of mood.)
To speak the purple dialogue in the ringing heroic tones ''Salome'' would seem to demand would turn the play into camp. And really, how can you deliver dramatic moments like Salome's kissing the decapitated head of John the Baptist without inviting hoots? As for that dance of the seven veils, even Rita Hayworth couldn't pull it off (in a 1953 movie, not taken from Wilde).
A 1992 New York version, which also featured Mr. Pacino as Herod, had critics in amused awe of its star's eccentric performance, but the show was largely dismissed as a mess. Three years later Steven Berkoff imported an English production to the Brooklyn Academy of Music that was an ice-cold slow-motion rhapsody in black and white that brought to mind a German silent movie. The Actors Studio stakes out its own twilight territory between a full physical staging and its self-described status as a reading. There are music stands artfully arranged on the Barrymore stage, and the performers do carry scripts, at least some of the time. But you get the sense that they know their lines as well as they do their phone numbers. And their performances have the rhythmic assurance of thoroughly rehearsed vocal parts in an oratorio.
The pretense of the production as a reading has important advantages, though. It avoids the impossible responsibility of creating a set to match Wilde's fantastical language. And it means that the performers don't have to address one another directly in words that are hard, to put it mildly, to justify as spontaneous conversation. Instead, set off by the ominous, whispery music of Yukio Tsuji and the jewel-toned lighting of Howard Thies, the characters mostly speak to the audience.
This is appropriate to a play in which vision, it is suggested, is as much of a creation of the mind and the loins as the eye. In the show's opening moments, a young Syrian guard (Chris Messina) sets the tone as, gaze fixed on some ambiguous horizon, he rhapsodizes about Salome, that princess who ''has little white doves for feet.''
Not an easy thing to say with a straight face, is it? Mr. Messina delivers his paeans at a high monotonal pitch, like a mooning adolescent. And his voice makes you aware of the painful gap between pretty words and gut feelings. It is an idea that will be explored in nearly every performance that follows.
As Herodias, Herod's wife and Salome's mother, the tuxedo-clad Ms. Wiest has the straight-backed carriage and stentorian tones of someone born to public life, streaked with a testy impatience with her less patrician husband. Playing the prophet Jokanaan (a k a John the Baptist), Mr. Strathairn has the pale, wild-eyed look of Bob Dylan at his most visionary and an artificially enhanced voice that could peel flesh. And the production wittily summons the gallery of soldiers as a wary chorus and the court's visiting diplomats as a squabbling United Nations.
But the show is at its most inspired in its presentation of Herod and Salome as different sides of the same expensive coin. Ms. Tomei, a Salome in a runaway state of sexual awakening, looks lithe-bodied and luscious, and she speaks with the petulant breathiness of a 1950's starlet. Mr. Pacino, his stomach straining against his black dress shirt, looks bleary and bloated and talks in the weary, high-pitched singsong of a man who is long accustomed to people hanging on his every word.
For all their surface differences, they are both spoiled monsters, creatures of vast appetites used to getting exactly what they want. Both Herod and Salome have a habit here of letting their tongues stray out of their mouths, as if in anticipation of tastes to come.
The plot of the play of course hinges on two specific wants: Salome wants to kiss the head of Jokanaan; Herod wants to see Salome dance. It's that simple. And that complicated. Watching these two pursue their appetites makes this ''Salome'' a luxuriously and disturbingly entertaining illustration of a dictum well known to people of power of all ages: Be careful what you wish for.
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?