AL PACINO likes layers. A week before the first performance of "Salome" at the Wadsworth Theatre in West L.A., he drifts up and down the dark aisles like a wayward cloud formation of black and gray garments -- baggy pants, a couple of untucked shirts and a droopy blazer, his smiling face floating above them in Cheshire cat fashion.
"Suicide," he says. "Murder. Sex."
Pacino is ticking off the overlapping elements that keep him coming back to this odd script and the role of Herod, king of Judea. Less than three years ago, he was doing this on Broadway.
"Love," he continues. "Betrayal. Religion ... It's Jerry Springer with rhyme."
Actually, it doesn't rhyme much, and in this 90-minute "presentation with music" -- some would call it a staged reading with bonus features -- most of the violence is offstage. But Pacino can't resist the rigors of live theater, even when marking his 66th birthday Tuesday. And he has more elements at play than the nasty plot and stark look of "Salome."
Along with 16 actors and two dozen crew members who will face these 1,100-plus seats, Pacino has a documentary team rolling on just about everything and everyone in the building. They're aiming for release in time for Cannes next year, yet the film's exact nature remains obscure.
"The working title is 'Salomaybe?' " says Robert Fox, one of the play's producers.
"There's a lot of stuff that Al's not telling us," says Barry Navidi, producer of the film.
This film, whatever it is, will almost surely be seen by more people than will "Salome" during its monthlong L.A. run. So here in the Wadsworth, there are questions: Which is the tail? Which is the dog? Will Los Angeles enjoy misbehaving Bible characters as much as Pacino does? And -- he isn't catching a cold, is he?
The king hasn't said. Or rather, he's not spilling specifics. As a reporter dogs him through four days of rehearsals and one surreal foray into the real world, he talks plenty.
"The issues of the play are vast and interesting," he says.
The film, he says, should be driven and enriched by language in the same way the best plays are -- "the specialty of language, the kind of feeling you get when you hear repartee that ignites and transcends. It just interests me, to see if I can do it," says Pacino.
"Man does not live by Oscar alone," he says.
"Am I filibustering?" he asks. (Who would say yes?)
Did he get a chance to recharge batteries between his last film project and this? Pacino waves a hand at the stage.
"This," he says, "is recharging batteries."
Six days to curtain
IT'S a blustery afternoon outside. Inside, the company is multitasking.
"Where is he whose cup of abominations is now full?" says a voice that might be God's, resounding through the theater. It's Kevin Anderson, who plays the imprisoned Jokanaan (a.k.a. John the Baptist), working with the sound guys on just how much portentous echo to give his bursts of prophecy.
Jessica Chastain, the willowy young redhead who plays Salome -- she's just two years out of Juilliard's drama program, yet sufficiently well schooled to dodge questions about her age -- is up front, investigating movement options and bantering with the director.
Behind her, composer Yukio Tsuji, who will contribute a live tone poem underneath the action as he did on the show's Broadway run, is testing flute sounds.
Pacino enters from the lobby, headed toward a conversation with a lighting guy and carrying his customary triple macchiato. He pauses to chat with two of the producers and a reporter, the cameraman and boom microphone advance, and suddenly there's a second show going on in the theater's back row.
"It sort of feeds you, having more obstacles," he says. "It's trying to break through those shackles of preciousness."
"I'm not in charge," says Estelle Parsons. She's the director.
"I work with Al," she says. "He has wonderful ideas. Well, sometimes they're terrible."
Parsons is one of those wise, cheerful 78-year-olds who don't much care what anybody thinks. She won a supporting actress Oscar for her role as a Barrow Gang member in 1967's "Bonnie and Clyde." She was among the original cast of the "Today" show, served as artistic director of the Actors Studio for five years, and played Roseanne's mom on television for close to 10. She and Pacino have collaborated on stage projects for the last decade.
When he's out of the room and she's slouching in the third row and barking up at the stage, she's utterly in charge. When Pacino is in the room, they negotiate. While the cast watches.
"That," says one of the actors, "I can't begin to understand."
Technically, it's a simple show: just one act and a handful of props to accent about 70 pages of strange and elegant dialogue. Oscar Wilde wrote it nearly 115 years ago in French, then oversaw its translation into English, generously distributing moon similes among the cast. Even after the audience shows up, most of the characters will play it in street clothes, and as it begins, they'll be glancing at scripts on music stands.