Al Pacino is quite good onstage reprising his Oscar-winning turn in Scent of a Woman, now playing at the Wadsworth. Inexplicably, though, somebody renamed it Salome after the Oscar Wilde masterpiece, as though we hadn’t seen the movie.
Pacino plays Herod, the blind-sided tetrarch of Judea who gets a mention or two in the Bible for what happens after his young stepdaughter, Salome (Jessica Chastain), strips for him in public. Herod is profoundly moved and titillated by Salome’s dance of the seven veils (here, a dance of one veil, possibly for budgetary reasons), during which she cavorts like a banshee to Yukio Tsuji’s live accompaniment, and bares her breasts. All of which infuriates Herod’s wife (she’s also Salome’s mother), a double-divorcée named Herodias (Roxanne Hart), who watches the spectacle from her throne. In the Bible, Herod is so pleased by Salome’s dance, he offers her anything her spiteful heart desires as payment. Wilde’s version — written in French and translated by Lord Alfred Douglas — has Herod offering the same reward not for the quality of the dance but for her mere consent to perform, which comes only after considerable pleading by Herod, and opposition by Herodias.
Because Herod has to beg just to get the brat to dance, Wilde’s Salome is more defiant and his Herod more sleazy than in the Good Book. In all versions, however, Herod makes his reward to her as a solemn public oath, so it’s next to impossible for him to dissemble in the way we’ve come to expect from people in high places who make big promises.
“Salome-eey-ee,” Pacino croons wistfully in a near falsetto and sibilant “S,” while leaning back in his throne. “Dyance for me, Salome-eey-ee.” Chastain’s Salome just glares back at him with her mane of red hair and fashion-model beauty: Put your money on the table, tetrarch. Or maybe the subtext is “Please, Al, cut the Pacino parody. We know you did this role years ago off-Broadway and on. We know you want to direct yourself in a documentary movie of this thing — I read it in Variety last week — but there are 12 other actors on this stage in a Bible story, while you’re doing a one-man comedy set in New Jersey! Give us a break.”
Were he playing Moses, Pacino could shrug before parting the sea, but as Herod, he rides the waves of his own cadences while everyone around him drowns.
At the start of the play, a few Syrians and other hangers-on mention some bad omens. Even before Herod arrives, a captain of the guard (Joe Roseto) commits suicide while watching Salome trying (and failing) to seduce John the Baptist (Kevin Anderson). The captain offs himself while sitting in a chair in a corner behind the music stand that holds his script. (This full-price, modern-dress “concert reading” features just a few chairs and platforms for a set, while each actor sits near a music stand holding the text.) One minute, the captain is alert, and then he slumps. We know he’s dead because everybody says so, though he doesn’t look much deader than when he was alive. He just appears to be taking a small nap. (Were I not reporting on this, I might have done the same.) There’s some apprehension expressed about what his blood on the floor portends, but this doesn’t stop us, or Herod, from making fun of the suicide.
Poor Herod is simply flummoxed by Salome’s horrible wish, which he’s sworn to uphold: to be served the head of John the Baptist on a platter. That’s what John gets for spurning her. She’s not someone who takes “no” for an answer, and, one way or another, Salome will kiss him on the lips. Most of the rest of the play consists of Herod’s attempts to change her mind: “That’s a tarrible, tarrible thing you’re asking,” says Pacino, gagging at the image of a decapitation. Then he shrugs before offering her verse after verse of ever-increasing bounty.
In the Gospel According to Matthew, it was Herodias, not Salome, who demanded John’s head, because the prophet had besmirched the integrity of her marriage. (By making the beheading payment for her dance, Salome was simply obeying her mother.) Somewhere in the art and literature of 19th-century France (painter Gustave Moreau and writers Stephane Mallarmé and Gustave Flaubert), the villain shifted from Herodias to Salome, and with that shift, the legend transformed from a myth about honor to a story about repressed lust and petty revenge — themes that obviously slammed hard into Wilde’s personal life.
With its lyrical descriptions of the moon, and the same kind of references to mirror reflections and vanity that crop up in The Picture of Dorian Gray, Wilde considered his Salome to be prose and never intended for it to be staged. This is why, when it is performed, it’s so often parodied, as in David Schweizer’s insufferably campy, homoerotic version for the Actors’ Gang in 1998.
Pacino appears drawn to the play’s whirlwind of sex and blood revenge, but he neither enters it, nor completely ridicules it. Rather, he dances around it. I can’t tell why.
Hart’s Herodias comports herself with fierce dignity. Anderson’s lunatic Jokannan (John the Baptist) bellows with a voice that echoes in miked reverb, while Chastain’s Salome glares and barks with all the callow force she possesses. None of them can compete with Pacino’s nonchalance, which quietly defangs them all. Somebody on the stage other than Pacino needs to impersonate Pacino, to match his sly wit and give him a worthy opponent. Instead, this is just a romp, one actor having a rollicking good time Being Al Pacino. Everyone else is just so much set decoration, including Oscar Wilde.
Estelle Parsons directs.?
SALOME | By OSCAR WILDE | Translated from the French by LORD ALFRED DOUGLAS | Presented by RICHMARK ENTERTAINMENT at the WADSWORTH THEATER, 11301 Wilshire Blvd., West Los Angeles | Through May 14 | (213) 354-3500