Revival of the Fittest

Old's Always Better; the Hard Part Is Making It New

The situation's especially discomfiting because Peters's charm, with a sizable assist from Dossett's, must carry the show. One can't judge Mendes's directorial concept (allegedly bare-stage and "dark," ho hum), which is widely understood to have been tampered with in previews. The staging includes a lot of bustle behind the main action, sometimes apt but more often just focus-stealing. As an instance of the way coarseness can spoil dramatic sense, Mendes has made Peters the first Mama Rose in history to shove the egg roll into Mr. Goldstone's mouth—not a good way to get booked on the Orpheum Circuit. The supporting players, like Anthony Ward's designs, are not bad but also mostly not notable. Tammy Blanchard, the Louise, sings flat but swaggers engagingly through her climactic star-trip. If the evening feels satisfying at the end—and it does—that's because the production's weaknesses matter less than the strengths of the writing. The hard part is getting an American audience to believe that the star of Gypsy isn't any performer or director, but Gypsy itself. The arguments that have raged over whether Peters is up to it are themselves the proof of its classic stature.

The classic stature of Salome, as far as the American stage is concerned, would be harder to prove; the current production has provoked denials that the work is stageable at all. Being by Oscar Wilde, it naturally has to be respected as a masterpiece—everything a master did is a masterpiece, right?—and the naysayers hardly seem aware that Wilde didn't write this play in English (though he did correct the worst slips in Bosie's translation), or that it was written for a theater which specialized in the very things that seem to make it unfeasible now. The Boulevard theater of Sarah Bernhardt's Paris loved above all else lavish orientalist "atmosphere" and speeches that were long multicolored prose poems.

Bernadette Peters in Gypsy: almost Rose to the occasion
photo: Joan Marcus
Bernadette Peters in Gypsy: almost Rose to the occasion


By Arthur Laurents and Stephen Sondheim,
music by Jule Styne
Shubert Theatre
225 West 44th Street

Salome: The Reading
By Oscar Wilde,
translated by Lord Alfred Douglas
Ethel Barrymore Theatre
243 West 47th Street

Exotic atmosphere and multicolored prose poems aren't the first things one associates with the Actors Studio, where the current Salome began, but there are Studio actors who can live imaginatively in such things, as well as others whose instinct is to drag everything down into contemporary urban banality (which is not the same thing as finding the reality of a work). Estelle Parsons's production, conceptually compromised already in being a reading-that-isn't-a-reading, makes an equivalent stylistic compromise to match. Half the cast goes high, some successfully and some not; half goes low. Marisa Tomei's Salome tries both directions, handling calmer moments in a cool, crisp diction suitable for Judaean tetrarch's stepdaughters, but diving into rage or lust like a valley girl whose valley is not that of the kings. She should take a hint from her mother: Dianne Wiest's Herodias, far and away the evening's best performance, makes her anger and resentment sound truly regal, yet still urgent.

And then there's Al Pacino, at whose behest this whole charade apparently exists. Why does he want to play Herod? Lounging in his upstage-center chair, he looks and sounds like nothing so much as an old Brooklyn guy mouthing off in the corner bar. The Pacino whose struggles with roles like Brutus and Richard III were honorable failures, full of excitement, is here coasting on his fame. What he might want the role, or the play, to convey to audiences does not appear to be a part of the evening's plan.

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