The show at the Ethel Barrymore Theater makes only a gesture toward a staged production of this tragedy, better known as an opera by Richard Strauss. There is velvety blue back panel that changes to red when Salome dances under a blood moon, three chairs draped in red velvet on a dais, several reading stands and costumes that are vaguely modern.
Yet Wilde's hothouse theatricality is powerfully evoked by a cast that has memorized every line and makes reference to scripts only occasionally to give the effect of a dramatic reading. Familiar material as it might be, the story of lust and revenge is still disturbing entertainment, especially as told by such a talented cast. Too bad it is being given 59 performances ending June 7.
The production, which was developed at the Actors' Studio and previously performed in Brooklyn, is especially notable for Tomei's performance in the title role. It is quite out of the character of her usual stage and screen roles and an important step up in her young but already exceptional career.
As the petulant teenage princess with raging hormones, bizarre sexual fantasies and a will of iron, she is simply superb -- and chilling. When her stepfather, horrified by her monstrous kinkiness, orders her death at the final curtain, the audience can understand his revulsion even though he is a monster himself.
Wilde wrote the play in 1891 in French with an eye to shock value and to Sarah Berhardt in the title role. When he tried to get it produced in London two years later, he ran afoul of British censors who refused to license a staging. It was published in English translation the following year, however, with Aubrey Beardsley's illustrations, now better known than the rarely staged play. Strauss' opera in German was premiered in 1905.
The action takes place at the court of King Herod Antipas of Judea (Pacino), who has imprisoned Jokanaan (John the Baptist) played by Strathairn for predicting the coming of the Messiah and denouncing the depravity of Herod's queen, Herodias (Wiest). Her daughter, Salome, is fascinated by the Baptist but he repels her advances.
When Herod begs Salome to dance for him, she extracts a promise that he will give her anything she wants as payment for fulfilling his lecherous request. Having danced, she is offered jewels and peacocks by Herod but insists on being given the head of Jokanaan. She wears down Herod's resistance to her bloody request, is given the dead prophet's decapitated head on a platter, and smothers the lips with kisses.
Tomei performs the infamous dance of the seven veils without veils, but it is still a sensational, all-out performance, one that has Pacino drooling. Pacino plays Herod intoxicated on wine in what can only be described as an erratically goofy but still effective and believable performance. He is the very portrait of a bored, world-weary monarch gone to seed.
Wiest brings her Herodias to a high emotional pitch on occasion but is generally satisfied to keep her characterization at a low, insinuating level. She aids and abets her daughter in all of her eccentric desires, especially when they displease Herod whom Herodias obviously loathes. It is a tight-wire performance well executed.
Only Strathairn gets lost in the stormy cross-currents of power and lust, but then Wilde didn't write him into the play as generously as the other lead characters. Director Estelle Parsons keeps him to the rear of the stage behind the seating provided for the other 15 cast members so that his presence is muted though his wild-eyed countenance is spotlighted.
It is Parsons' only miscalculation in an otherwise well thought out "reading" that seems semi-staged. She uses a passel of Judean soldiers as a sort of Greek chorus and moves various Jews, religious sect leaders, and foreign diplomats visiting Herod's court on and off stage without too much clutter or confusion.
Peter Larkin is the show's scenic consultant and the dramatic lighting has been devised by Howard Thies. Jane Greenwood has designed a confusing wardrobe of costumes including a sort of female tuxedo for Herodias. More important to this production is Yuko Tsuji's incidental music, played by onstage musicians to establish the feeling of decadence and ominous foreboding that saturates Wilde's eternally engrossing play.