OSCAR WILDE'S "Salome" is a strange play. Just how strange? It's lured the great Al Pacino to take on the part of Herod, king of Judea -- as though he were channeling Jerry Lewis.
Evidently it's a choice. Pacino has been working on the one-act for a number of years with his director, Estelle Parsons. Their approach to Wilde's elaboration of a Bible snippet, originally written in French with the hope it would become a star vehicle for Sarah Bernhardt, is not just decadent (which would only be fitting given the play's fin de siecle pedigree) but comically perverse.
In what has been packaged as "a presentation with music of Oscar Wilde's masterpiece" -- in truth, a rehearsed reading with actors sitting behind music stands -- laughter is unusually prevalent for a play that, last I checked, was categorized as lush, overripe tragedy. Well, at least there was plenty of hilarity in the air at the show's opening Thursday at the Wadsworth Theatre, some of it no doubt of the nervous kind.
For those assuming that if Wilde's involved, it has to be funny, let me clarify that this is the playwright in a more serious, self-conscious, at times even swelteringly poetic mode.
Inspired by Mallarme (though not wanting to duplicate his obscure symbolist take on the tale), Wilde opted for a neurotic meditation on desire. His dramatization of the willful princess who asks her besotted stepfather Herod to bring her the head of the imprisoned Jokanaan (a.k.a. John the Baptist) after the chaste prophet spurned her advances focuses on the compulsive relationship between lust and the forbidden -- something that a few years after the play was written would (unjustly) earn Wilde a little jail time.
Though not the customary response to "Salome," the bursts of tittering at the Wadsworth were understandable. Not only is Pacino offering a wacky over-the-top portrayal of an aged, wine-bloated ruler desperate to peer down his nubile stepdaughter's chemise, but it's not clear what he and Parsons are artistically trying to achieve.
The comedy is too halfhearted for it to be a campy, Ridiculous Theatre Company-style lampoon, which might have proved tonic given Wilde's heavily perfumed, metaphor-rife treatment. Nor is it a particularly illuminating investigation into erotic hysteria, which is what you might expect given the play's subject matter and the project's Actors Studio roots.
But whatever Pacino and Parsons may be up to, they haven't yet made a case for the play's stage-worthiness. The text still seems like a libretto in search of music, which, of course, it found when Strauss composed his opera based on a German translation of Wilde's script. What "Salome" needs is not Pacino's loopy, old-goat theatrics accompanied by the cymbal clanging of an onstage percussionist but Karita Mattila's searing soprano, which conquered the role at the New York Metropolitan Opera in 2004 in a performance that has already become a 21st century legend.
No such luck when Parsons corralled a concert reading of the play on Broadway in 2003 with a cast that, in addition to Pacino, included Marisa Tomei as the headstrong princess Salome, David Strathairn as Jokanaan and Dianne Wiest as Salome's mother, Herodias. That limited-run offering, widely criticized for charging full-scale prices for a half-baked theatrical experience, was notable mostly for Tomei's daring transformation of the dance of the seven veils into a solo bump-and-grind that had her writhing, half-naked, on the floor.
Common sense apparently prevailed: The L.A. version features only one big name and slightly tamer choreography (though with a top ticket price of $93, there's still clearly a good deal of insanity afoot).
Kevin Anderson, looking scruffy with his shirt unbuttoned and hair tousled, makes a weak impression as Jokanaan. Jessica Chastain, a ravishing redhead recently out of Juilliard with a penchant for stomping her foot whenever she wants to communicate willfulness, turns Salome into a kind of New Testament contestant for "America's Next Top Model." And Roxanne Hart, in one of the less mannered (though no more memorable) performances, portrays Salome's mother with a dignified authority that makes you wonder why she isn't whooping it up like the rest of her family.
As for Salome's racy dance, it may not clarify much dramatically (other than the pained, impotent longing of Pacino's Herod), but it still packs a sexual wallop. Yet it must be said that Chastain's gyrations are less seismic than Tomei's, which can only be compared to the quaking of the San Andreas Fault.
Wilde thought the star of his play was the image of the moon; Bernhardt assumed it was the title role that everyone hoped she'd play. We've all come to see Pacino onstage as Herod, a character traditionally portrayed with the royal masculine privilege of a tyrant not used to being checked.