The Dead
Photo by Joan Marcus

From Grace to A Painful Case

A Review of James Joyce The Dead

One Act in Four Scenes

Book by Richard Nelson
Music by Shaun Davey
Lyrics adapted by Richard Nelson and Shaun Davey.
Directed by Jack Hofniss and Richard Nelson
Starring Christopher Walken as Gabriel Conroy and Blair Brown as Gretta Conroy.

Playwrights Horizons, October 28 - November 14, 1999.

Review by Allen B. Ruch of The Brazen Head

Note: Updated comments on the improved Broadway production follow this review

Review
I'm beginning to grow increasingly more wary of any production of a literary classic that bills the author's name as part of the title. The new musical by Playwrights Horizons is called James Joyce The Dead, which is only half true -- it might be someone's version of "The Dead," but it's not James Joyce's! In fact, I'm not sure whose version of "The Dead" this was, as it seemed to be designed to please an audience ranging from patrons of serious theater to fans of Irish balladry to the Stomp and Riverdance crowds. The overall effect was jarring, piecemeal, and certainly grating to anyone who has read -- or at least understood -- Joyce's original masterpiece.
By calling it a masterpiece, however, I do not mean to enshrine "The Dead" behind an unapproachable bubble of timeless glass. Deep in the heart of every reader is the desire to see a work transfigured into a new medium, brought to life as that perfect movie, or captured by just the right composer. There have been many classics of the written word which have been well served by adaptations into film, music, or theater. Some, like the opera Wozzeck, even transcend the original; and "The Dead" itself was made into quite an excellent film by John Huston. But Huston knew that The Dead would be his swan song; he approached it with artistry, with care, and certainly with feeling -- and most of all, he trusted in James Joyce. The result -- while still a translation, of course; a retelling -- was a critically acclaimed work that even die-hard Joyceans, admittedly a prickly bunch, will grant a fond nod: "There's never been a good movie version of Joyce -- except, of course, Huston's." So when Playwright's Horizons announced that they would be producing an off-Broadway musical version of "The Dead," most Joyce fans viewed the news with an uneasy mixture of cynicism and hope. Of course it could be done well, but . . . Yes, always that trailing but, a sardonic nod to a world of commercial and artistic compromises that litter Broadway as well as Hollywood.
Well then, before we proceed further, a caveat: I am not a professional theater critic; my world is literature, and I am a dyed-in-the-wool Joycean. This piece will be longer and more detailed than most theater reviews, as I plan to not only review the performance, but to critique the adaptation itself. As the title of the musical suggests, this is James Joyce's "The Dead," and poor, beastly dead Jim is even listed in the "Who's Who in the Cast." So I do not feel that it's unfair to use the original story as a yardstick to measure the intentions of the musical. Therefore please read on in that spirit, and be warned that this discussion contains "spoilers."

It began in good faith. The set was modest and authentic, with the right touch of white lace and fluttering gaslight. The orchestra was located stage left, hidden behind a scrim, positioned directly behind the "onstage musicians," where a cello and a violin joined the all-important piano. A bodhran propped against the piano promised some Irish merriment; a dutifully expected and not unwelcome addition.
Christopher Walken entered first, and immediately answered the question of how the production would deal with Gabriel's complex internal monologues. Throughout the performance, Walken would play two Gabriels: the character and the narrator. As narrator he addressed the audience directly, while the cast would either freeze, or in an interesting development during the "Three Graces" speech, would continue to react to an invisible Gabriel. In this case Walken, separating from his theatrical doppelgänger, moved between them, addressing the real audience before returning to place. It was a good compromise, and these monologues gave the production most of its literary chops and any real gravity it maintained.
Scene 1 was the best part of the production, as the music and drama were the most naturally integrated. Like Cabaret, the characters themselves were musicians, performing songs as part of their environment. Of course these songs pulled in the whole cast in rather clever ways, but that was to be expected, and it was a delight to watch the various reactions of the characters to each song and to each other. There may have been a few songs too many -- including the "Parnell Song," an cheerful tune that was sure to raise the hackles of any scholar of Joyce or Irish history -- but overall, it was rather enjoyable, fun, and high-spirited throughout. The songs were a mixture of parlor pieces taking their cue from the story itself, mingling "traditional" Irish tunes with drinking songs and light operetta. The music, written by Shaun Davey (Waking Ned Devine), was fairly lightweight and pleasant enough, with lyrics mostly adapted from Irish poetry by Shaun Davey and Richard Nelson.
The songs were spaced between character-building segments, some of which worked beautifully and some of which were awkward or heavy-handed. The most effective pieces were the most subtle, many of these emerging from the general confusion of the party: a sudden look of fear, a forgiving laugh, a private moment of silence, or a few words whispered across the room. As an ensemble, the cast was wonderful, capturing the elusive mood of old friends and relations coming together at an annual party; and it was a testimony to their talent that the audience was made to feel like a privileged observer rather than a faux guest. Here was a family truly living life, with all its small miracles, intimate tragedies, and inevitable solitudes. Especially good were Blair and Walken, whose Gretta and Gabriel had the flinty charm of a long married couple, an intimacy of casual warmth, mixed signals, and unexpected gentleness.
However, not all the interactions were pulled off, which was largely the fault of the script. There was no doubt that Nelson was ironing out and adjusting the text, flattening (or missing?) many subtleties while dialing the principal conflicts up several notches. Perhaps Director Jack Hofniss (The Elephant Man) could have used a lighter touch here, as well; but as he left the production before it premiered, it's hard to say whether Hofniss or Nelson is more responsible. Of course one can't expect that all of Joyce's subtleties can be directly transferred to the stage, and some allowances can surely be granted -- the emphasis on Gabriel's "continental ways" during the extended "galoshes" scene, or the early comments on "snow being general all over Ireland" for instance. But some aspects of the original story were unfortunately impaired. The teasing friction between Molly Ivors and Gabriel was too forced, too simplistic, based purely on exaggerated political differences and devoid of any real sexual tension. Lily delivered her "The men that is now is only all palaver" speech with more teenage surliness than real bitterness, and rather than surprising or "discomposing" Gabriel, it was played almost for comic effect. It was apparent from the start that Lily was to have a different role than in the text. Robbed of her disillusioned passage into adulthood, here she merely represents the zesty spirit of the Irish underclass, dutifully serving the problem-ridden guests as she dances and sings her way through a simple life. But while nuances involving Molly and Lily were discarded or merely ignored, the Gretta/Michael Furey conflict was set into place at the very beginning, given enough foreshadowing that even the dimmest patron realized Mrs. Conroy had another fellow on her mind than her husband. Nelson went as far as adding an extra character, a young servant named Michael(!) from "Killarney," the catalyst of several "Haven't I seen you before. . . ?" comments from a near-mesmerized Gretta.
Oddly enough, it was actually an alteration to the original text which produced the musical highlight of the production. In the actual story, Gretta begins thinking of her old lover when Bartell D'Arcy sings "The Lass of Aughrim," a sad ballad overheard as one of the last songs of the evening before the Conroys depart for the hotel. Nelson moves this pivotal moment to the end of Scene 1, giving the song instead to Gretta herself, who sings not "The Lass of Aughrim" but "Golden Hair," a song penned by Mr. Davey with lyrics adapted from Joyce's own "Poem V" from Chamber Music. Sung clearly and sadly by Blair Brown, it was one of the few moments that truly transfixed the house, and had all the grace of a true Irish air. Of all the musical adaptations of "Golden Hair" that exist -- and there are several -- this may be the most beautiful. Mr. Davey's setting pierced to the core of the poem, spinning out its haunting sense of innocent longing on a thread of pure gold.
Alas, if the rest of the musical could have proceeded as tastefully. It was in Scene 2 that the production began to lose artistic focus, and any distortions done to the text in Scene 1 were made negligible by the damage to come. Scene 2 concerned itself with the dinner episode, where a thought-tormented Gabriel delivers his annual speech. Lacking any plausible context for introducing songs, the production mutated into a traditional-style musical, with the cast and characters spontaneously breaking out in song to express their feelings. Given the naturalness of Scene 1, this was a jarring transition; but not as jarring as the complete departures from the text that were about to come. After Gabriel sings his toast ("Three Graces," a rather uninspired tune with some painfully awkward lyrics and too many repeats) the party begins again, as Aunt Kate and Aunt Julia prepare their "annual piece." And what do these two elderly matrons, ill of health, pictures of dignity, have for us? Why, a rousing ditty called "Naughty Girls!" Soon the whole cast joins the venerable aunts as they prance around the table, lifting their skirts and singing about a degree of naughtiness which has "Rome in a whirl!" This brings a furious sequence of banging from the neighbor downstairs, who, sourpuss that he is, has been beating his roof periodically when the party gets too loud. (Oh, I didn't mention the annoyed neighbor?) This intrusion breaks up the "Naughty Girls" chorus line, but upsets Freddy Malins, who begins banging back. Bang, stomp. Freddy then bursts into his own song, vivaciously chiding the agitated tenant for his grumpiness. "You don't shush the singer," sings Freddy, bang, stomp; "We should shush you!" At first horrified at his behavior, the other guests join in after Molly starts stomping away as well. And soon we have the second big production number, as the whole company clogs and stomps and rents and riverdances their way across the wooden floor, voices raised in a defiant song, affirming life, and making enough merry noise to "wake the dead," as they sing over and over again as the last verse. To quote Molly Bloom: "O Jamesy let me up out of this."
Scene 3 takes place in Aunt Julia's bedroom. Tired from her exertions on the dance floor, Julia lies dangerously exhausted in bed, bidding her guests goodnight. After D'Arcy's promised aria, a barbershop quartet from the gentlemen, and another refrain of "Three Graces," Aunt Julia is finally left in peace. That is, until she's visited by the ghost of her former self, mirror in hand, singing a youthful -- though no less beautiful -- reprise of "When a Lovely Lady," one of the finer tunes in the show. Hand in hand, voices together, the two Julias rise from the bed and exit backstage, where a rather lovely snowfall has been fluttering down over the black backdrop. As the lights dim, we are left wondering -- did Julia die? It certainly seems like they killed her off. Perhaps they were trying to ironically evoke Joyce's famous lines, "One by one they were all becoming shades. Better to pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age." Or perhaps they just thought it would play on some teary heartstrings. Personally, I was still reeling from "Wake the Dead," so I might have envied old Julia's dignified departure.
The last scene is, of course, the moment of truth, the heartbreaking realization that Gretta has had another love, a passionate love, a young Michael Furey who died for her, forcing Gabriel to question his own heart, soul, and life. A landmark of modern literature, my fingers were crossed that they would omit the music and merely let the words speak for themselves. The audience was in a reverent hush. The snow fell, silver and dark in the blackness. Blair Brown and Christopher Walken were snugly in character. It could have been beautiful. But instead of trusting Joyce, Nelson and Davey put their faith in the expectations of a Broadway finale. Totally gone was the frustrated desire Gabriel should have been feeling for his wife; missing, too, the final sad tenderness. Instead of two riveting monologues, Gretta sung her story about Michael Furey, and Gabriel sang his last thoughts to the snow. Not only were the tunes unmemorable, but the songs flattened the words, cheapened them, rendered them trite through repetitious refrains that turned them into set pieces rather than epiphanies. And on top of that, Nelson actually rewrote the final lines. No longer did the snow fall "faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead," now it fell "upon the churchyard, where Michael Fury was buried, upon our bed, upon her red hair, upon our souls, and upon the living and the dead." And in case we missed the point, the rest of the cast assembled solemnly onstage to repeat the last refrain in full voice, running over one of the most delicate moments in literature with a Broadway-bound chorus bus.

The cast itself was a varied and talented crew, and their enthusiasm for the piece was evident. I saw one of the final "preview" performances, and we were dutifully warned that due to some recent illnesses, rehearsal time was lost, and the cast was still jelling together. Even given that, I found the cast to be one of the strengths of the production. Blair Brown was the gem of the performance, possessing a marvelous singing voice and bringing a ruffled sense of shyness and grace to Gretta. When she sang an Irish song, she was singing it as an Irish song, with the proper intonations and inflections; it was quite welcome. Her accent was also the best of the bunch, and there were indeed several variants of Irish accent all at different levels of credibility. Christopher Walken, while an unusual choice to play Gabriel Conroy, still pulled it off. His Gabriel was properly agitated and slightly aloof, occasionally self-deprecating, but possessing both charm and an ironic sense of humor. There was also never any doubt that he was in love with Gretta, a love that comes with its usual possessiveness, self-doubt, and flashes of desire. Although Walken is not a stranger to musical theater (Best Foot Forward, 1963), his voice was nowhere near as polished as the rest of the cast, and his singing came across as cracked and hesitant. He also looked vaguely uncomfortable throughout some of the performance, which is understandable if you have to sing with Blair Brown and have a voice so out of practice. Sally Ann Howes and Marni Nixon made a delightful pairing as Aunt Julia and Aunt Kate, showing a genuine warmth and affection between the elderly sisters, more concerened with each other than with themselves. Emily Skinner's Mary Jane was a little more strained; but not as weak as the Molly Ivors of Alice Ripley, who played her too simply, missing her intellectual sexiness and turning her into a peppy Irish girl scout. A welcome surprise came with the role of Freddy Malins, who could have easily been a stereotypical jolly Irish drunk. Although some of his eager sputtering was a bit over-the-top, Tony-winner Stephen Spinella created a very warm and caring Freddy, a source of both admiration and pity. A great singer, as well, despite having all the "comic relief" tunes. Tony-winner Daisy Eagen, who had the misfortune to be cast as a sentimental plot device, almost redeemed the role of "Young Julia" with her lucid voice. (She was also the servant girl, "Rita.") John Kelly made a credible but sorely underused Bartell D'Arcy, and Brian Davies' blustery Mr. Brown was dead-on. The character of Lily was more problematic. She seemed more an Irish caricature recruited from the steerage section of the Titanic, and Brooke Sunny Moriber's Irish accent neared parody. Simply put, the character was poorly written, and Moriber seemed out of place, hamming it up in numbers like "Wake the Dead" and delivering her lines with little real feeling. Paddy Croft, who had the fretful part of Mrs. Malins, seemed likewise a victim of heavy-handed direction, but she certainly made the best of it, visibly thawing under Freddy's mawkish affections.

Though at times I was reminded of the notorious musical staging of A Streetcar Named Desire from The Simpsons, the production was certainly not without merit or promise. Some of the songs were quite striking, and the cast was clearly talented enough to pull off a more artistic rendering. If Nelson and Davies would have framed it as a play with musical interludes drawn from the actual story, and if they would have just trusted in Joyce's genius, words, and vision; it might have been quite successful as an adaptation. Ah, but then again, it is a curse of the entertainment industry to believe that classics are just waiting to be improved....

--Allen B. Ruch
29 October 1999


Review Update
I was recently -- and kindly, I may add! -- invited back to see the new production of James Joyce's The Dead that is currently selling out Broadway's Belasco Theater. While I still have the exact same problems with the adaptation itself, I can happily announce that the transition to the "big time" has improved the production significantly. Although Christopher Walken and Blair Brown were still the heart of the work, their emotional chemistry and mastery of nuance were largely matched by the rest of the cast, which have jelled even more into a delightful ensemble. The sense of friendship and warmth on the stage was remarkable, and did much to elevate the dramatic portions of the musical. Brian Davies -- whom I earlier called "dead-on" -- has developed an even firmer hold on Mr. Brown, a character perpetually hovering on the threshold of expansive congeniality and boorish annoyance. His onstage friendship with Freddie has been further developed as well, and the two men are a joy to watch as they trade knowing glances or exchange secret comments. The very hearty and masculine friendship these two men share also throws Gabriel's alienation into sharper focus -- Walken's Gabriel is removed from the warm rituals of male bonding, but his rarefied world is obviously without solace, and he remains essentially alone. The only cast change from the first production was in the role of Lily, the serving girl, and it was a very welcome change indeed. Angela Christian's Lily was a great improvement, remaining diffident and slightly unsure of herself -- this Lily knows her place in the household, and her obvious affection for the family makes her occasional sharp reprimands as well as her attempts to join in the fun all the more poignant. Stephen Spinella's Freddie is still the show-stealer, but his antics seem to be laid on more thickly for the Broadway production. The "Three Graces" were all in good form, including Patricia Kilgarrrif, the understudy who played Julia the night I attended. Alice Ripley has somewhat improved her hold on Molly Ivors, though at times she seems unsure what to do with the character.
There were also a few interesting alterations made to the adaptation itself -- the ambiguity about Miss Julia's final end has been removed, and some dialogue has been re-arranged. Alas, none of these changes brought the adaptation closer to Joyce's original, but they did allow for a smoother production. The musical numbers, too, were more polished, and the cast seemed more at home with the choreography and the integration of the songs themselves. (Though I still feel that "Wake the Dead," though clearly a show-stopper, is woefully, if not comically, out of place.)
Of course, all these are improvements in the production, not the adaptation. I still feel quite strongly about the damage done to the text -- even moreso, seeing as the idea of a "Dead" musical can certainly be pulled off. It makes it all the more baffling why the last scene has to be ruined by two awkward songs, when the dramatic tension would surely permit a more meaningful -- and striking! -- conclusion.
Finally, a few words about Christopher Walken. In between productions, I re-read "The Dead," I watched the movie again, and I even reviewed two versions on audio-tape. Although Walken has drawn mixed reviews since the play's opening, and though his singing voice is inferior to the rest of the cast, I am even more convinced that he was an inspired choice for Gabriel. The range of complex emotions he brings to the material is impressive, and often it transcends the adaptation itself, which tends to flatten out the subtleties of the Joycean text. Walken allows Joyce's Gabriel to shine through, and he conveys much of the character's self-doubt and melancholy aloofness through a range of subtle gestures, expressions, and perfectly-timed hesitations. His Gabriel is emotionally distant, but genuinely affectionate; and his ironic wit hides a certain sadness, springing from a self-awareness that seems as much a curse as a virtue. I would be delighted to hear him reading an unabridged "The Dead" on tape!

--Allen B. Ruch
25 February 2000

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