The New York Critic: Reviews

Roll Over, Oscar

The reading is a neglected and under-rated form; it’s too often seen a half-created production, as if it should be something it doesn’t want to be.  Now the form has been commercially elevated to Broadway Salome: The Reading, with Al Pacino. 

 There are many directions a director can give a reading, and Director Estelle Parsons has made her formalistic choices clear: the vocal performance is complete and rich, and the flow of the prose-poetry is generally well served.  There’s no set or costume to speak of – just dark clothes and a screen upstage.  Her actors are positioned deliberately, and they’re generally facing front.  They move sparingly: Herod enters and sits center until he pleads with Salome to release him from his promise.  It would be wise blocking even for a full production.  Indeed, if it weren’t for the scripts that are usually in the actors’ hands, Parsons could call this a complete minimalist staging.  

As for play: at the turn of the century, melodrama combined with exoticism to produce a new form.  Its adherents called it “aestheticism”; its critics called it “decadence” – the word has the same root as “decay”. Salome in is its play of record.  

The story - you may know - is Biblical: Herod promises Salome (his wife’s daughter) anything she wants if she’ll dance for him.  She dances the Dance of the Seven Veils, and asks for the head of John the Baptist, Herod’s prisoner. John (Wilde calls him “Jokanaan”) has made the mistake of rebuffing her advances. 

Those familiar with Wilde only through his comedies of manners will be unprepared for Salome.  It’s written in impressively overblown prose.  To take it too seriously would be a mistake.  Wilde was not merely serious – neither was he merely joking. His insight was to see that there’s nothing more serious than a joke.  Moreover, within the context of its own hyperbole, the script is delicate and balanced; Wilde is always in control.  He wrote the play in French, and the writing is as distinctly French as the Alexandrine.  Thus, the English script has the advantage of being a translation – Wilde valued artificiality. 

Salome is perfect for the minimalism of a reading.  It would take Aubrey Beardsley to design a set for this play – you’ll recall his deliciously gory sketches of Salome holding the head of poor John.  Better to leave to the imagination the mise-en-scene. 

In spite of some glaring faults, Salome: The Reading is a major Broadway event.  Marisa Tomei plays Salome like a spoiled, overgrown Valley Girl, a child/woman effusing spite.  She’s interesting - in spite of her lisp.  The Dance of the Seven Veils is marvelous, as savage as Sacre de Printemps, with terrific music.  Indeed, the whole play enjoys Yukio Tsuji’s spooky music.  We’re scarcely aware of the keyboard or the percussion, as they underlay the lines. 

As for Pacino: he gives us a show of shameless hubris.  He speaks in the childish whine of the American moron – like one of the characters in those cheap movies he makes.  He delivers his lines with self-congratulatory incongruity, making us laugh, like the acting class clown who isn’t up to the scene.  He apparently thinks he’s above the material.  For his punishment, the audience refuses to take him seriously, and they laugh even when they’re clearly not expected to.  Even when he gives the play’s final line, “Kill that woman!”, there are titters from the orchestra. 

Indeed, her technical skill aside, Parsons has made the choice to make exoticism familiar.  Throughout, the first syllable of "Salome" rhymes with “Al”, not with “Ahh”.  It makes a masterpiece accessible by dumbing down. 

I grant that there’d be no Broadway production of Salome if it weren’t for Pacino.  And I grant that within the confines of his choices, Pacino is very skilled.  But still – there’s no excuse for trivializing this script.  Happily, the glory of Salome overpowers the horror of Pacino acting in it.  It’s a victory for Wilde that the show triumphs over its leading man. 

- Steve Capra