Al Pacino and Marisa Tomei in Salome(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Al Pacino and Marisa Tomei in Salome
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
In Oscar Wilde's Woman of No Importance, the wicked Lord Illingworth remarks that "moderation is a fatal thing; nothing succeeds like excess." He is, of course, the moutpiece of Wilde, who -- to his eventual detriment -- insisted on saying and writing whatever he damn well pleased.

Wilde never pushed the vellum envelope further than he did with his play Salome, which he conjured during something akin to a fever dream in Paris one night in 1891. Plummy prose flowed as he imagined what it could have been like at Herod's court during the charged hours when the tyrant promised his stepdaughter Salome anything if she'd cut a rug for him and she, acquiescing, asked him in return to cut off a head -- namely, that of John the Baptist.

Gushing over the zealot here called Jokanaan, Salome spouts some of Wilde's most effusive comments, and neither her utterances nor those of her compatriots have been edited other than for the occasional Britishism in the current Broadway presentation of Salome. Labeled a "reading," this curious spring item has been brought to the relatively bare Barrymore Stage (Peter Larkin, scenic consultant) because star Al Pacino wanted to do it.

"Thy body is white like the lilies of a field that the mower hath never mowed," Salome (Marisa Tomei) exclaims. "Thy body is white like the snows that lie on the mountains of Judea and come down into the valleys. The roses in the garden of the Queen of Arabia are not so white as thy body." She keeps it up until she turns against the unmoved saint-to-be and decides that his body is "hideous...like the body of a leper. It is like a plastered wall where vipers have crawled." And more of the florid same.

What this Salome makes as clear as the snows that lie on the mountains of Judea is that Wilde's pursuit of the excessive is shared by Pacino; it's the ground on which they meet and shake hands. The description "over the top" might well be applied to every performance the 63-year-old actor has given lately. That includes his Arturo Ui earlier this season and certainly includes his Herod here, whom many relentless theatergoers will decide resembles the aforementioned Arturo.

Longtime Pacino watchers will recall that his current style of acting couldn't be farther removed from the way he took on a role at the start of his career. In The Indian Wants the Bronx, Does a Tiger Wear a Necktie? and, perhaps most typically, in the first two Godfather films, he was all calculating control, suggesting menace by way of chilly stillness. But as Michael Corleone became loose and louche, he also became, by The Godfather: Part III, operatically excessive. Indeed, the youngest Corleone boy's transformation can be seen as establishing a pattern for that of Pacino.

Everything about this Salome is excessive, including its very presence. After all, Pacino has already done the play on Broadway in a full production at Circle in the Square in 1992. But he must feel that he hasn't finished with the role and has therefore stuck with it -- just as he's stuck with other projects, presumably for the same reason. An actor dedicated to the theater, Pacino perhaps sees his stage work as a happy alternative to movies, where he may have the luxury of more than one take but eventually must accept that what appears in the final cut is the final product. Incidentally, in his Playbill biography he includes only theater credits -- not the Godfather film trilogy, not Scent of a Woman (for which he won an Oscar), not even Looking for Richard (the documentary in which he excessively probed Shakespeare's Richard III with like-minded actors).

Dianne Wiest and Al Pacino in Salome(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Dianne Wiest and Al Pacino in Salome
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
For Pacino, it's beginning to seem as if "over the top" is an understatement. He's certainly orbiting higher than any cow pole-vaulting the moon. Arriving on stage in Salome after the title character and Jokanaan and assorted others have stirred the air with Wilde's windy and turbulent prose, Pacino ambles to his throne, with Herodias (Dianne Wiest) at his side, as if to an overstuffed club chair. When he opens his mouth to speak the prolix speeches, what comes out sounds pungently Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. In fact, he sounds like Abe Hirschfeld looks: middle-class Jewish with an inflated sense of entitlement.

If watching someone match his convictions with actions is a measure of success, then Pacino succeeds like nobody's business. Having made his choices (with some nightly variations, according to Wiest in an interview), he doesn't shrink from them. He slouches on that faded gold throne at center stage, never actually reading from a script (as don't most of the others). Eventually, he rises to stalk about or drops to his knees while outlining the treasures Salome could acquire should she agree to dance for him.

"Salome, you know my white peacocks," he implores, his hound-dog eyes more haunted than usual, "my beautiful white peacocks that walk in the garden between the myrtles and the tall cypress trees. Their beaks are gilded with gold, and the grains that they eat are gilded with gold, and their feet are stained with purple." The ripe prose is just as stained with purple, and Pacino -- directed by Estelle Parsons, or maybe indulged by her -- scants none of it. Is he good by any conventional definition? Well, Wilde isn't interested in conventional definitions, and Pacino understands that. The play is what it is, and the same can be said for this actor's fearless performance.

Marisa Tomei, wearing a top that reveals her midriff and needing no veils, catches Pacino's mood. (Jane Greenwood designed, or maybe okayed, the easygoing-street-clothes look; Howard Thies lights the costumes and everything else darkly.) Despite the court's not being especially hospitable to Jews, Tomei plays Salome as a Jewish-American princess; she's willful and demanding and, when denied what she wants, petulant. Thus she makes very believable Salome's split-second switch from praise of Jokanaan to excoriation, and her dance is torrid stuff. Who would have thought that the shapely, often underrated Tomei could shimmy with such abandon as Yukio Tsuji's wall-to-wall percussive music swells?

Dianne Wiest, smart cookie that she is, knows that the way to get noticed in such busy company is to do less rather than more; consequently, she makes Herodias's quiet jealousy palpable. David Strathairn, with wild hair, has shaped his Jokanaan according to Salome's "ugly body" speech rather than her "white like the lilies" outcry. Chris Messina, who typically brings a Pacinoesque touch to his roles, is good as a Syrian awed by Salome.

Have Pacino et al. gone as far as they can go? Too far? Difficult to say. One thing's for sure: It's hard to take your eyes off them while they have at this play.