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REVIEW

Few restraints on this Herod

In a staged reading of 'Salome,' Pacino exercises his freedom but not much else.

May 02, 2003|Michael Phillips | Chicago Tribune

NEW YORK — In "Hamlet," Shakespeare's prince warns against portraying wickedness in such a way that "out-Herods Herod." In the staged-reading revival of Oscar Wilde's "Salome," proof that a 90-minute running time is strictly relative, Al Pacino portrays Herod. And in the worst way, he out-Als Al.

Pacino has done some wonderful stage work throughout his career, but his yen for this particular incestuous king is another matter. He played Herod a decade ago in a Circle in the Square production. This reading, with actors working largely from scripts on music stands, has been developed in various incarnations beginning at the Actors Studio.

Translated from the French by the scandalous playwright's lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, Wilde's drama isn't easy in any theatrical context, especially without the Richard Strauss music. (The opera came later.) It's a static, nearly undramatic piece. Only a suicide and a seven-veils striptease enliven Wilde's artfully brocaded descriptions of the moon and of the jewel-encrusted niceties Herod offers to his daughter by marriage, Salome.

Marisa Tomei plays the one with, and without, the veils. In this vaguely contemporary costuming of "Salome," she wears a wee T-shirt, cut just north of the navel. (Pacino, sporting a tuxedo, vest and pricey wristwatch, resembles someone who has stayed too long at someone else's Oscar party.) Tomei has evidently done her yoga, and if they give out a Tony Award this year for best supporting posture, she's got it bagged.

The "acting" part of it fares less well. By design, all the performances under Estelle Parsons' hands-off, no-direction direction are American and contemporary in look, feel and sound. Tomei stomps her feet and acts like a sitcom brat. Lounging in a cushy chair at depraved angles the way Tony did in "Scarface," Pacino cajoles and brays, pushing his voice into a strained, affected upper register. He sounds like Rip Taylor on the cusp of Jerry Lewis. After a while you expect confetti, or a "Laaaaaady!" or two.

Against all reason, stalwart Dianne Wiest, as Herod's wife, manages the right combination of wit and authority, floating on a sea of dignity while others flail around her. David Strathairn, too, is smart enough to play it straight in the role of John the Baptist. Salome lusts for the prophet. Herod lusts for Salome. I lusted for the exit -- or some evidence, at least, that Pacino wanted something more from this glorified workshop exercise than the chance to do whatever he wanted to do, mostly while sitting down.

Michael Phillips is theater critic at the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune company.

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