Joyce-ful and Triumphant

A Review of James Joyce The Dead



Review by Clive Barnes
New York Post

IF you want a theatrical treat that enchants, surprises and finally thrills with unexpected depth, get thee double-quick to the Belasco Theatre.

For James Joyce, life was a cycle of birth and death. Last night the ritual joyousness of that cycle came to Broadway with the wonderful musical play "James Joyce's The Dead." This sort-of-musical, with text by Richard Nelson, music by Shaun Davey and lyrics by the two of them, started earlier in the season at Playwrights Horizon. Now it has arrived on Broadway for what is regrettably a limited run.

Seeing it again, in the expanded space and atmosphere of the larger theater, I thought it was even more wondrous and entrancing -- not to mention just plain entertaining -- than in the intimate but also constricted circumstances of off-Broadway.

The story is simplicity itself. It is really little more than a kind of diary account of a family Christmas gathering -- the Feast of Epiphany on Jan. 6 -- set in Dublin in 1904. Every year, a couple of elderly spinsters, Julia and Kate, and their much younger niece, Mary Jane -- all music teachers -- host this homespun gathering of music, dancing, food, drink, hospitality and good fellowship.

It is, of course, a sensitively charming adaptation of the last story of Joyce's collection of short stories, "The Dubliners," which earlier provided the basis for film director John Huston's final masterpiece.

Huston's 1987 movie must have been seen by many more people than ever read the original, so it is probably this shadowy ghost -- more than the Joyce story itself -- with which the present stage version will be compared.

It is, however, neatly appropriate that Joyce set his action during the Feast of Epiphany, because here the author seems to reach his own personal epiphany in the person of the play's narrator, Gabriel. After all the merrymaking, Gabriel -- alone with his late-night thoughts -- discovers a potent but familiar truth that changes his thinking and is destined, henceforward, to color his character.

The beauty here is the manner in which Nelson and Davey contrive to so vividly present Joyce's mix of jocular realism and heady poetry.

It is Joyce made manifest, much more truthfully than in Huston's more elegiac movie. Staged by Nelson himself and acted flawlessly by a great cast, the show is completely unchanged from Playwrights Horizons, providing sequence after sequence of heart-stopping drama.

David Jenkins's setting, the period costumes of Jane Greenwood, the lighting of Jennifer Tipton and the sound design by Scott Lehrer all frame the actors and their play as if they represented some treasured family engraving mysteriously brought to life.

As for the actors, they don't seem like actors at all; rather they appear to be larger-than-life ghosts from Gabriel's memory. We probably haven't seen such ensemble playing on Broadway since Brian Friel's "Dancing at Lughnasa."

The strange, haunted yet amiable presence of Christopher Walken's Gabriel dominates the play, but all the others are strong as well, from Stephen Spinella's sweetly guilty drunk, to the two aunts, Sally Ann Howes and Marni Dixon, to ... simply, to everyone.