Salome by Oscar Wilde: The Reading Music By Yukio Tsuji. Directed by Estelle Parsons. Scenic Consultant Peter Larkin. Costume Design Jane Greenwood. Light Design Howard Thies. Sound Design Erich Bechtel and David Schnirman. Cast: Al Pacino, David Strathairn, Marisa Tomei, Dianne Wiest. Also starring Jill Alexander, Timothy Altmeyer, Brian Delate, Daryl Dismond, Timothy Doyle, Andrew Garman, Robert Heller, Owen Hollander, Robert Lavelle, Chris McGarry, Chris Messina, Ed Setrakian, Kevin Stapleton. This production was developed at The Actors' Studio. The production was previously performed at St. Ann's Warehouse in Brooklyn, New York and at the Bardavon 1869 Opera House in Poughkeepsie, New York.
How do you make five world-class actors - with no less than two Tony Awards, five Academy Awards, one Emmy Award, and four Golden Globes between them - look bad? The answer, apparently, is associate them with Salome.
That's not to say that the presentation of the work currently on display at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre is a complete loss. It is fun to see Al Pacino, David Strathairn, Marisa Tomei, and Dianne Wiest all onstage at the same time, and Wilde's play, with all of its liquidy language replete with over-the-top imagery is enjoyable to listen to. But why these four performers (and their director, Estelle Parsons) aren't able to make anything out of it may just be the biggest question this Broadway season has yet asked.
Developed at The Actors' Studio, the production is a staged reading, which means there's a dearth of scenery (Peter Larkin is credited as the scenic consultant responsible for the black steps, music stands, and occasional flashes of red velvet), and most of the performers carry their scripts throughout. (Granted, few of the 17 cast members need to refer to the scripts often.) But at Broadway prices, audiences have the right to expect from their staged readings consistency of characterization, particularly from actors of this caliber.
None of the four above-the-title billed actors seem capable of being in the same play with any of the others. Strathairn seems to be channeling Greek tragedy, Pacino a 1950s sitcom, Dianne Wiest a modern one-hour TV drama, and Marisa Tomei a college stage adaptation of Valley Girl. Being shown up by the City Centers Encores! series should not be a feather in any of these actor's caps, given this group's greater rehearsal time and two previous productions in Brooklyn and Poughkeepsie.
Parsons, in allowing all this incongruity, certainly highlights the differences between the characters, which is a vital aspect of the story. But she defeats the purpose of a staged reading, which is to remove all the excessive trappings and focus on the richness of the text itself. Wilde's work is certainly nothing if not rich in its story of Herod (Pacino), his new wife Herodias (Wiest), and her daughter Salome (Tomei) confronting the tormenting, real and imagined, of holy man Jokanaan.
In short, Herod begs Salome to dance against the wishes of her mother, offering her whatever she wants in exchange. She complies, and then asks, in the finest tradition, for the one thing Herod has no intention of giving her: Jokanaan's head in a silver charger. Much of the second half of the play finds Herod bargaining for Jokanaan's life, offering her some of the most valuable treasures the world has known in exchange. Peacocks, jewelry, holy relics... Everything is hers for the asking, and Herod's more and more desperate attempts to spare Jokanaan's life should find the tension increasing exponentially.
But that doesn't happen. Pacino's buffoonish, sing-songy delivery that conveys little religious or royalty hypocrisy, no danger, no fear. Nothing drives his Herod. What comes across is little more than a star shamelessly playing for laughs. And, yes, he gets them, but the cost is too high - Wilde's work deserves better. Parsons admits in her director's note in the Playbill that Salome was designed to be read "for the beauty of the language," but in attempting to present his role as drama in this fashion, Pacino finds neither beauty nor drama.
Salome isn't entirely without rewards, though. Wiest's performance works the best of the billed stars, and she gives a full performance that might actually work in another production of the show. More significant is Yukio Tsuji's original music, which he plays live. Almost continuous underscoring, it's relentlessly rhythmic and excellent at putting across the dramatic meanings of moments the actors generally don't seem to find; his music for Salome's Dance of the Seven Veils is particularly good. Tomei's work on that dance (there is no credited choreographer, for the record) ranks as her particular highlight for the show.
But for a work of this scale, this really is insufficient. This Salome demands something - anything - that will make all the elements gel. It isn't necessarily elaborate costumes and it isn't necessarily extravagant sets, as good shows can survive without either. Coherent performances would be the first step in the right direction, which might eventually lead to the spark of theatrical inspiration that can make even staged readings spectacular experiences.
This Salome is hardly that. It's hardly much of anything, though apparently it was good enough for the people involved. That's unlikely to be good enough for anyone who goes to the theatre expecting to be moved, inspired, and transported. For those who just want to see stars, bring your telescope to the Barrymore and learn that even the world's best actors are capable of keeping you at more than arm's length.