"The Dead": a Musical That Dares to be Quiet

A Review of James Joyce The Dead



Review by Ben Brantley
New York Times, October 29, 1999.

NEW YORK -- Sometimes a murmur is more startling than a shout. For its first enchanted hour, "James Joyce's 'The Dead,"' the new stage adaptation of the classic short story at Playwrights Horizons, makes a sterling virtue out of a trait rarely associated with American musicals: shyness.

In reconceiving Joyce's great, elegiac tale of a Christmastime gathering in gaslight-era Dublin, this production, which opened Thursday night, achieves a soft-spoken, hesitant air of intimacy that has you leaning forward like a fascinated eavesdropper.

Portraying a group of friends and relatives assembled for a Yuletide feast of shared songs and stories, the actors, led by Christopher Walken and Blair Brown, seem to be pitching their performances to one another, rather than to anyone beyond the proscenium, and even this is realized with a gentle, uncertain quality that would send Ethel Merman into shock. In a genre characterized by brassy extroversion, "The Dead" is a quiet revolutionary: a musical that dares to be diffident.

Mind you, this show, which has a book by Richard Nelson and a score by Shaun Davey, is far from perfect. Midway through, it takes a jolting wrong turn into overstatement and sentimentality. Mercifully, this doesn't tarnish the affecting originality of the evening's first half. "The Dead," which was directed by Nelson and Jack Hofsiss (who left the production early this month), is as lopsided as a lean-to. But when a musical successfully claims new ground these days, it is reason to celebrate.
The last and best-known of the stories that make up Joyce's "Dubliners," "The Dead" would scarcely seem to lend itself to easy dramatization. Its most momentous occurences are shifts in perception in the mind of its central character, the teacher and writer Gabriel Conroy (here played by Walken). Nonetheless, the director John Huston, in his last movie, caught exactly the elusive, lambent mood of the story, conjuring the pathos of characters tethered to a realm of shadows, the dead of the title, that they are destined to join.

Nelson's version is, oddly enough, at its weakest when it tries hardest to transmit this sensibility. Calling the show "James Joyce's 'The Dead,"' while considerately awarding Joyce the titular status of commercial heavyweights like Stephen King and Judith Krantz, is to some degree deceptive.

There are moments of true epiphany here. But they are less Joycean flashes of unbidden insight than visions of ordinary people transported by the powers of music. Defined with both delicacy and exhilaration, such moments recall the inspiriting eruption into dance by the provincial sisters in Brian Friel's "Dancing at Lughnasa."

"The Dead" takes place mostly during the annual Christmas party of the elderly Morkan sisters, Kate (Marni Nixon) and Julia (Sally Ann Howes), and their niece, Mary Jane (Emily Skinner), all of whom teach music. Joyce's tale is infused with references to singers and composers and prominently features two traditional songs. Davey has provided his own substitutes for these, adapted from Irish poems, and added a host of other numbers. Some are of the classic organic-musical variety, in which speech melts into song; the other, and better, efforts are conceived as parlor pieces, performed as entertainment by those at the party.

The night's signal event, in which Gabriel realizes he has never truly known his wife, Gretta (Ms. Brown), has been radically reconfigured by Nelson, and the physical indications of mortality in the story dramatically scaled up, with Aunt Julia now conspicuously ill, rather than merely frail.

These deviations are not necessarily improvements, and the script itself is hardly the best work of Nelson ("Some Americans Abroad," "Goodnight Children Everywhere"). Nor do the songs of Davey, who wrote the lyrics with Nelson, stand securely on their own. The band of musicians, directed by Charles Prince, plays with unobtrusive moodiness, but the songs' strength has everything to do with how they are sung.

This means with considerable self-consciousness and little obvious professional polish, though the cast features singers of well-honed skills from three generations, from Ms. Nixon (famous for providing the singing voices of stars like Audrey Hepburn and Natalie Wood on film) to Daisy Eagan, the young Tony-winning star of the Broadway musical "The Secret Garden."

The tone is indelibly set when the three Misses Morkan lead off the evening's preprandial songfest with a trio. They are initially a bit stiff, even embarrassed, in need of the touches of reassurance they give one another. Their singing, while sweet, is faltering. For these very reasons, the number, like many of those that follow, is inexpressibly moving and an unmediated expression of character rare in musicals.

For roughly the next hour of the play's intermissionless 100 minutes, this sense of song weaving awkwardly through the prosaic, repetitive business of a party that changes little from year to year is wonderfully sustained, and it is a compliment to say that you are rarely aware of the period scenery (David Jenkins), costumes (Jane Greenwood) or the subtly shifting lighting (Jennifer Tipton). One of the guests or hostesses may leave the stage while others are singing; uneasy glances and whispers are exchanged; Mary Jane sheds silent tears when her Aunt Julia forgets the words to a song she has long known.

The duet performed by the Conroys (with charming choreography by Sean Curran), in which Gretta exudes womanly warmth while Gabriel gives off a distancing awareness of his limitations, is a whole portrait of a marriage in miniature. The sexually tinged friction between Gabriel and the young, politically minded Molly Ivors (Alice Ripley) is provocatively limned in a rousing ditty about Parnell. The plaintive eagerness of Freddie Malins (Stephen Spinella), a drunk of a middle-aged boy, is given stirringly rough-hewn life in a jaunty barroom song.

Spinella performs this number with his back to the audience, underscoring the sense of our being allowed a privileged glimpse into a closed world. It is impossible to sort out what in the inspired mise en scene comes from Hofsiss and what from Nelson, but there is a generous reciprocity among the actors, a sense of each being aware of the slightest tremors of mood among the others.

Walken, an actor known to make a diet of chewed scenery, is magnetically low-key here, and the tone matches the defensiveness and intellectual detachment of the Gabriel of Joyce's story. Even when he steps outside of the play to address the audience, Walken somehow projects an intense inwardness. It's an eccentric performance, for sure, but more often than not it works.

Ms. Brown, who has come solidly into her own as a stage actress in the last year or so, is Walken's perfect foil, vibrantly maternal and sensual. She is earthier than Anjelica Huston was in her more enigmatic take on the character in the movie, and this feeds nicely into the evening's central theme of hidden life beneath commonplace surfaces.

As a visiting opera singer, the performance artist John Kelly seems a tad too exotic, though he also gives off an engagingly humble restraint. Ms. Ripley and Ms. Skinner (who was in "Side Show") and Spinella are all first-rate, and Ms. Nixon and Ms. Howes, who bring to the show their own nimbus of a life in musical theater, are deeply touching.

It's when "The Dead" breaks the rhythmic domestic flow of the party, overstating elements that are already eloquently implicit, that the production deflates. Certainly, the sugary duet between Aunt Julia and her younger self (Ms. Eagan) could be eliminated. Davey has not found the music to match either Gretta's great revelation after the party or Gabriel's reaction to it. What should be the show's emotional climax feels like an afterthought.

The evening's real pinnacle has been scaled some time before. This happens when after dinner the prim Kate and Julia unexpectedly break out into a slightly risque, musical-hall style number, "Naughty Girls." The initial astonishment of their guests gives way to intoxicated delight. Soon, they have all joined hands in a flowing, ecstatic line of movement that brings to mind Matisse's famous "Dancers."

That the revelry is abruptly terminated only enhances the joyousness of what has occurred before. Such moments of transcendence are, as Joyce well knew, as close to heaven as humanity ever comes.


PRODUCTION NOTES:

JAMES JOYCE'S "THE DEAD"

Book by Richard Nelson; music by Shaun Davey; lyrics conceived and adapted by Nelson and Davey; directed by Jack Hofsiss and Nelson. Sets by David Jenkins; costumes by Jane Greenwood; lighting by Jennifer Tipton; sound by Scott Lehrer; orchestrations by Davey; musical direction by Charles Prince; director of development, Jill Garland; production manager, Christopher Boll; production stage manager, Kelly Kirkpatrick; choreographed by Sean Curran. Presented by Playwrights Horizons, Tim Sanford, artistic director; Leslie Marcus, managing director; Lynn Landis, general manager, by special arrangement with Gregory Mosher and Arielle Tepper. At Playwrights Horizon, in New York City.

With: Christopher Walken (Gabriel Conroy), Blair Brown (Gretta Conroy), Sally Ann Howes (Aunt Julia Morkan), Marni Nixon (Aunt Kate Morkan), Emily Skinner (Mary Jane Morkan), Brian Davies ( Browne), Stephen Spinella (Freddy Malins), Paddy Croft (Mrs. Malins), Alice Ripley (Miss Molly Ivors), John Kelly (Bartell D'Arcy), Brooke Sunny Moriber (Lily), Dashiell Eaves (Michael), Daisy Eagan (Rita and Young Julia Morkan), Daniel Barrett (Cellist) and Louise Owen (Violinist).

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