Seen on Broadway:

What is it with Al Pacino and Salome? He starred as King Herod in a fully designed revival of the Oscar Wilde drama 10 years ago, and it was laughed off the stage. Now he’s back in Salome: The Reading, a modern-dress staged reading that is the most bizarre vanity project to hit Broadway in my lifetime. Director Estelle Parsons appears to have asserted little or no control over her cast. Marisa Tomei does everything but snap her bubble gum in her portrayal of Salome as a vacuous Valley Girl who is inexplicably hot for John the Baptist, played here as a hairy, wild-eyed madman by David Strathairn. (Dancing for Herod, Tomei looks like a club kid having a drug-induced seizure on the disco floor). The main event, however, is Pacino; slouching, rolling his eyes, delivering each line in a Bette-Davis-meets-the-Yiddish-Art-Theatre manner, he appears to be reviving his Big Boy Caprice character from the film Dick Tracy. Can this fine actor possibly be happy with this performance/? What does he think as the audience laughs at every outrageous mannerism? Has he long harbored a secret desire to camp it up in public? If so, he’s definitely getting his wish. I must add that Dianne Wiest hangs onto her dignity as Herodias (I would like to place an official request that someone revive The Importance of Being Earnest, with Wiest as Lady Bracknell). The eminent Peter Larkin and Jane Greenwood are onboard as scenic and costume consultants; Larkin apparently devised a ground plan, and Greenwood kept everyone color-coordinated. There’s a nothing-special lighting design from Howard Thies and an unremarkable sound design by Erich Bechtel and David Schnirman. Anyone planning on attending this production for a laugh, expecting a non-musical Dance of the Vampires, be warned: This is a long, long hour and 40 minutes. A friend of mine has noted that, if Pacino tries this again in another 10 years, he’s not going. I’m with him.


Salome: The Reading photo: Joan Marcus

Seen on Randall’s Island: Cirque du Soleil is back among us, with the company’s latest touring edition, Varekai. "Varekai" is a Romany word for "wherever," but it could also signify "business as usual at Cirque du Soleil." There are some spectacular acts, including the twin brothers Andrew and Kevin Atherton, who fly through the air holding on only to wrist straps, a gymnast who contorts her body into terrifyingly Cubist arrangements while balancing on canes; and acrobats who launch themselves off of swings, soaring like so many guided missiles. Also on display are all the grating mannerisms of Cirque shows, including the unfunny clowns, the trashy Europop musical score, and the impenetrable concept (According to my press kit, the show centers around characters named Icarus, Olga, the Guide, and the Skywatcher. Well, if they say so…). None of this upsets the audience, which cheers lustily after each and every act. However, if you’ve seen Cirque’s colossal Vegas epics Mystère and "O", be aware this is a trim touring edition, focusing on the acts instead of special effects. (The lighting design is particularly modest, with only a handful of automated units in use.) Varekai also has a mostly new design team, including set designer Stephane Roy, costume designer Eiko Ishioka, and lighting designer Nol van Genuchten; nevertheless, it is indistinguishable from the work of the Cirque’s regular creative staff. There are also some disappointing projections by François Laporte, and the usual impeccable sound effects by old-timer Francois Bergeron. This is my sixth or seventh Cirque, and it’s possible that they’ve worn me out. Still, this one is probably for hard-core fans only.


Varekai photo: Rick Diamond

Seen Off Broadway: If they ever give a Drama Desk Award for Most Dysfunctional Stage Family of the Year, the hands-down winner would be The Ledbetters, the Illinois clan at the heart of Stone Cold Dead Serious. Clifford, the patriarch, is an aphasic, incontinent, drug-addled invalid who stares at QVC all day long. Daughter Shaylee is a thief, prostitute, and drug addict, currently suffering from hepatitis she picked up from one of her johns. Mother Linda slaves at the local hash house, and wonders if they should begin regularly attending Sunday services ("We’re supposed to be Catholic," she points out). Rapp spares us no squalid detail of the family’s existence, from the large (attempted suicide, infanticide) to the small (flatulence, nose-picking). His protagonist, 16-year-old Wynne, plans to escape this hellhole by running off to New York and appearing on a weird TV reality show, in which he will battle real-life ninjas to the death for $1,000,000. Playwright Adam Rapp wants to shock us with his vision of an America populated by morons hooked on sex, drugs, and television, but the real shock is the writer’s condescending approach to his characters. Stone Cold Dead Serious is too incredible to be sociology and to ham-handed to be black comedy. It is, however, extremely well directed by Carolyn Cantor, and the actors, most of whom are double-cast, are first-rate. There are one or two interesting passages, and one scene, a highway encounter between Wynne and a lecherous middle-aged driver, could stand as a creepily effective one-act play. Furthermore, this no-budget production is extremely well designed. David Korins manages to get four very different sets, including a car interior, into the tiny space at the Chashama Theatre and Ben Stanton provides effective lighting for each. Victoria Farrell’s costumes are depressingly accurate and Eric Shim’s sound effects are realistic and effective. There’s a lot of talent behind Stone Cold Dead Serious; I’d like to see it put to better use. --David Barbour


Stone Cold Dead Serious photo: Steven Freeman

Seen at the Movies: The summer season opens with a bang with X2, Bryan Singer’s highly anticipated sequel to X-Men. Actually, I found this follow-up to be more entertaining than its predecessor, even though it took me half the movie to sort out the mutant characters and their special powers (I’m still not sure about a few of them). My special power is that the plot points of a movie like X-Men vanish from my memory almost immediately, so I felt at times that I needed a road map through X2. Fortunately, the film offers enough diversions for the marginally initiated. The action is extremely well staged and edited, starting with an attack on the White House by a new character, the blue-skinned teleporter Kurt Wagner (Alan Cumming). Wagner is actually a devoutly Catholic, well-meaning chap who has come under the control of evil scientist William Stryker (Brian Cox) and his mutant son.


X2

Soon, Wagner joins forces with the X-Men gang, including Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), Storm (Halle Berry), Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), Cyclops (James Marsden), and Rogue (Anna Paquin). They must rescue their leader Prof. Xavier (Patrick Stewart), who’s been taken captive by Stryker, and in this they have an unlikely ally: the first film’s villainous mutant, Magneto (Ian McKellen), and his shape-shifting sidekick, Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos). Along with the charismatic Jackman, McKellen and Romijn-Stamos dig into their roles with the most enjoyable relish. Though the Marvel Comic-into-film genre will never be my favorite, this adaptation at least goes out of its way not to insult the viewer’s intelligence. My major reservation is that there is still something a little impersonal about the whole enterprise--most of the X-Men don’t come to the full emotional life one might wish. Berry, Janssen, Marsden, and Paquin all seem pretty pallid, as a matter of fact.


X2 photos: 20th Century Fox

Technically, X2 is of a piece with the first film. Once again, DP Newton Thomas Sigel gives the movie a steely, hard-edged look, and production designer Guy Hendrix Dyas constructs mainly steely, hard-edged sets. One ingenious setting is an all-plastic chamber where Magneto is kept prisoner in the first part of the film; the underground facility where much of the climax takes place looks fairly standard issue, on the other hand. Costume designer Louise Mingenbach clothes the characters in varying shades of black, blue, and gray. The visual effects, supervised by Michael Fink, are as digitally uninspired as in X-Men, though there is a cool effect when Xavier gathers up images of all the earth’s mutants with his Cerebro machine. Gordon Smith’s makeup effects are excellent.


Owning Mahowny photo: Ava Gerlitz/Sony Pictures Classics

On a smaller scale, Richard Kwietniowski’s Owning Mahowny stars Philip Seymour Hoffman as a based-in-reality compulsive gambler who brought on a Canadian banking crisis in 1982. This is the ultimate schlub role for Hoffman, though the actor always seems to be searching for new levels of mesmerizing colorlessness in his parts. Owning Mahowny is entertaining around the edges, and features spot-on early 1980s production design by Taavo Soodor and costume design by Gersha Phillips, but it centers on a character whose company I have no desire to keep for two hours.... Karen Moncrieff’s Blue Car is a creepy story of a troubled teenage girl (Agnes Bruckner) whose literary abilities and more erotic charms are noticed by a high-school English teacher (David Strathairn). This film has gathered up a lot of praise on the festival circuit, but I found it to be thoroughly predictable and even more unsavory-seeming than the subject matter requires. Rob Sweeney’s glum cinematography isn’t of much help. --John Calhoun