New York Gets Double Dose Of Al Pacino's Stage Presence

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Salome. Play by Oscar Wilde. Directed by Robert Allan Ackerman. Starring Suzanne Bertish, Sheryl Lee, Esai Morales, Al Pacino, Arnold Vosloo. At the Circle in the Square Theatre through July 29.

AL PACINO has accepted a double challenge in the two-play repertory at the Circle in the Square Theatre. In Oscar Wilde's "Salome," (1891), Mr. Pacino portrays Herod Antipas, the lusting Tetrarch of ancient Judaea. In "Chinese Coffee," by Ira Lewis, he switches to the contemporary scene for a comic conversation piece. Though the results are uneven, one can applaud Pacino for accepting the twofold challenge.

"Salome" takes place on the great terrace in Herod's palace. The play's central conflict comes into focus in Zack Brown's setting: at one end of the open stage, a dais for Tetrarch and his court; at the other end, the covering over of the cistern from which the gaunt prophet John the Baptist, known here as Jokanaan (Arnold Vosloo), emerges periodically to challenge Herod. The uneven contest will end with John's beheading.

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The real executioner is, of course, Salome, who demands the Baptist's head as her price for performing the dance of the seven veils. In the Wilde version, it is Salome herself, rather than her mother Herodias, who takes the lead in badgering a reluctant Herod. The Tetrarch repeatedly expresses his respect for John's prophetic powers. In the end, Salome has her way. However, she survives but briefly her triumph.

The production staged by Mr. Ackerman seeks to cast the Wilde poetic drama in terms a latter-day audience will find acceptable. The lines are delivered colloquially but with some attempt at a heightened style. The movement, including Lar Lubovitch's choreography for Salome's writhing dance, aims at a visual imagery to match the text. The performance approximates the aim.

The light-voiced Mr. Pacino does what he can to suggest Herod's sinister dominance; in this respect, he is somewhat outmatched by Suzanne Bertish's disdainfully formidable Herodias. Sheryl Lee's Salome combines the young woman's sinuous charms with her mother's implacability as she bargains for John the Baptist's head. In the role of the doomed prophet, Mr. Vosloo denounces Herod's sacrilege and the corruption surrounding him. The remaining principals in an articulate cast are Esai Morales (the Syrian Ca ptain of the Guard) and John Joseph Freeman (the young Roman Tigellinus).

Zack Brown designed the Biblical-style costumes as well as the setting. Arden Fingerhut provided the muted lighting. Chinese Coffee. Comedy by Ira Lewis, directed by Arvin Brown. Starring Mr. Pacino, Charles Cioffi. Through August 1.

`CHINESE Coffee" casts Mr. Pacino as a struggling, middle-aged writer Harry Levine, who has dropped in on his photographer friend Jacob Manheim (Charles Cioffi) to collect a longstanding debt.

Harry is particularly in need of money, having just lost his doorman job because he was incapable of "bowing and scraping." But Manheim claims to be broke. The circumstance provides playwright Lewis with the pretext for a 90-minute conversation piece in which two friends ventilate a variety of animosities. The tone is astringently comic. The purpose is serious.

Levine has left a copy of his latest manuscript with Manheim and is now anxious to hear the photographer's reactions. The longer their conversational dance continues, the more evident it becomes that Levine isn't going to get a good notice from his candid friend.

"Frankly, your work doesn't satisfy," says Manheim, later observing that a Levine novel is "like walking into one of the less cheerful Hopper paintings." Manheim resents particularly that he and others of Levine's friends have become thinly disguised characters in the new novel.

The success of this kind of verbal duet (or duel) clearly depends much on the way it is handled. Lewis can be thankful for the pace and sharpness with which Messrs. Cioffi and Pacino handle the encounter under Arvin Brown's direction. A scruffy figure in a hand-me-down wardrobe, Pacino presents the desperate defiance of a writer whose reach doesn't sufficiently exceed his grasp. Yet this literary hopeful hasn't lost his determination.

Cioffi plays the all-too-frank gadfly with a zest that can sometimes mask but never quite conceal Manheim's underlying malice. By its painful conclusion, "Chinese Coffee" has been drained to the dregs. As the comedy ends so, as it seems, has the friendship.

The Pacino repertory is being presented as a benefit for the Circle in the Square Theatre.

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