by Margaret Croyden

Photo of Margaret Croyden
Margaret Croyden is a theater reviewer and essayist for the New York Theatre Wire.

Salome, The Reading-- Al Pacino's Obsession
by Oscar Wilde
Directed by Estelle Parsons
The Ethel Barrymore Theater
243 West 47th Street
212- 239-6200
Reviewed by Margaret Croyden May 10, 2003

Some years ago Al Pacino appeared as Herod in "Salome" in a Circle In the Square production. There he was in full costume sputtering, declaiming, and acting up and failing very badly. I have always admired Pacino's work in the movies. Who could ever forget his superlative performance in "The Godfather" and in the numerous other films over the years? He has been one of the most successful actors in the business and now, as he is getting older, is still going strong. So what possessed Al Pacino to come back to the stage where he started decades ago? One must respect this desire, but one is leery of his choices. Is this the role --again Herod in "Salome"-- to make his comeback on Broadway? What is his obsession with this play? He received no accolades for it the first time around, why bring this Oscar Wilde play back--perhaps Wilde's poorest play.

We all know the biblical tale of Salome and John the Baptist, and the desire of Salome to have the head of John as her reward for her famous dance of the seven veils. In this Oscar Wilde play the essential tale is the same, only the head she wants is Jokanaana's, a mystic profit, who refuses her kisses. This drives her crazy, and when King Herod, asks her to dance and promises anything she wants if she would oblige him, she demands the Head. Herod delivers the head, but in the end orders her death. The moral: be careful what you wish for....

The trouble with so called "reading" (the actors sit around and appear to be reading from the script but actually know their lines) is that this gimmick is neither theatrical nor visually appealing, and therefore unnecessary. The other major trouble is Al Pacino, himself. Playing against the role as a despot, he chooses to camp his way through this rather boring tale, using Yiddish inflections in his line readings (one wonders why). He sits awkwardly on the throne--which is too big for him--dressed in a black shmata outfit, his belly protruding, and delivers these odd sing-song lines, more suitable for a character from the Bronx. There seems to be no over all conception of the role, just funny one liners.

As for Marisa Tomei in the role of Salome--that is another mistake. With her little girl voice and her pretty curls, she is hardly the giant figure that would tempt the king and his courtiers. Ms Tomei has no stature, no presence on stage. Yes, her dance, with the usual sensual gyrations, is somewhat engaging and she gets a hand for this, but she cannot and does not inhabit the role. David Strathairn as the mystic profit, Jokanaan has a strong voice, and a God-like tone but on the whole, his is a conventional performance. Diane Wiest, an accomplished actress, is equally lost in a thankless part as Salome's mother. Everyone is acting but nothing is really happening.

The director, Estelle Parsons has made some bad choices: one, in doing this play in the first place: two, in allowing Pacino to camp up the role (maybe he was trying to be original in his approach--too original I think); three, she needed a superb actress for Salome; and four, why do a reading? In the end, the production lacked energy and pace--Pacino took his time with every line and used pauses as if every moment had an indelible meaning. Which only made the hour and half more tedious.

Of course it is fun to see movie stars come back to the stage and for a couple moments they are intriguing; all eyes are on the star, but after a while they too can become boring. [Croyden]

Margaret Croyden's latest book, "Conversations With Peter Brook, 1970-2000," is published by Farrar Straus and Giroux.

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