"The Dead" Walk Again, if Only in Spirit

A Review of James Joyce The Dead

Review by Robert Feldberg
Bergen Record Corp, October 29, 1999.

JAMES JOYCE'S THE DEAD: An off-Broadway musical, at Playwrights Horizons, 416 W. 42nd St. Book by Richard Nelson. Music by Shaun Davey. Lyrics by Nelson and Davey. With Christopher Walken, Blair Brown, Sally Ann Howes, and Marni Nixon. Directed by Jack Hofsiss and Nelson. $50. (212) 279-4200.

It isn't easy separating "James Joyce's The Dead" from its past.

Just as the musical, which opened Thursday night at Playwrights Horizons, is about the impact of the dead on the living, you watch the show aware of its ghosts.

It's based on Joyce's exquisite early story of a jolly Christmas party and its poignant aftermath, which also inspired the haunting 1987 movie, John Huston's last film.

The stage production of "The Dead" -- the most anticipated show of the off-Broadway season -- isn't in the same league as either of its predecessors, lacking the power and poetry of the story and the enveloping atmosphere of the film.

Insofar as it's possible to see it on its own, the stage production is notable for an attempt to stretch the musical form, blending story and songs in a fresh way.

The songs, original but with the sound of Irish folk tunes -- some of the lyrics are new, others use Joyce's words or old poems -- are performed by the holiday guests to entertain one another. Yet they also serve, to a degree, as character songs, revealing the personalities of the singers. It's imaginative, but not particularly effective dramatically, as it tends to stop the flow of the story.

Despite a notable cast, the show, which has had two directors, never really finds a rhythm. It sits uncomfortably on the stage, static, a bit stiff, full of ambition and ideas, but, in its short playing time of 1 hour, 40 minutes, lacking in depth and telling detail (despite flavorful period costumes by Jane Greenwood and scenery by David Jenkins). It has, additionally, a whopper of a casting mistake.

The pre-opening excitement stirred by "The Dead" -- which has a book by Richard Nelson, music by Irish composer Shaun Davey, and lyrics by both -- is probably more a result of its glittery cast than its past.

Christopher Walken and Blair Brown head an ensemble that includes the veteran actresses Sally Ann Howes and Marni Nixon; Alice Ripley and Emily Skinner, who played the Siamese twins in Broadway's "Side Show"; Daisy Eagan, who won a Tony for "The Secret Garden"; and Stephen Spinella, who won two of them for "Angels in America."

The story's setting is Dublin just after the turn of the century. The party is an annual event at the home of the elderly Morkan sisters, Julia (Howes) and Kate (Nixon), and their niece Mary Jane (Skinner). The women teach piano and sing, and the party, attended by friends and students, is filled with music and dancing, good food and high spirits.

Also at the party are the sisters' nephew Gabriel Conroy (Walken), a somewhat cold and elitist university teacher, and his wife, Gretta (Brown). In Joyce's story, the party is to an extent experienced through Gabriel's eyes, and the moment of truth between him and Gretta that it causes is the work's emotional core.

Unfortunately, Walken gives a stupefyingly flat and uninvolved performance. Quickly abandoning his attempt at a brogue, he sounds much more the product of the streets of New York than of Dublin, and his droning monotone of a voice -- he seems to be reading the part instead of playing it -- barely gives a sense of Gabriel's thoughts and feelings. Walken also demonstrates that he can't sing.

Nelson, who replaced Jack Hofsiss as director in addition to doing the adaptation, contributes to the loss of impact of the show's final scene by altering the sequence and common sense of things.

One of the memorable moments in the story is Gretta listening, stock still, to a song that brings back to her the memory of an early love who died young. Watching her, Gabriel feels a flood of passion, thinking her rapture has something to do with him. It happens late in the story, and leads right into the last scene, with its painful disillusion. Nelson changes the memory trigger to Gretta seeing a young man at the party who resembles her old suitor, and places the brief incident in the middle of the evening, fatally diluting its impact. He also diminishes the power of the Gabriel-Gretta encounter by preceding it with an added scene devoted to Julia.

The show's most touching musical moment comes when Julia begins a song, falters, and is quickly joined by Kate, who helps her finish it as a duet. As much as the characters, though, we're affected by watching the two aging actresses working togther, Howes, who was Julie Andrews' replacement in "My Fair Lady," and Nixon, the behind-the-scenes singing voice for so many film stars, including Audrey Hepburn in "My Fair Lady."

They, and most of the rest of the cast, do a fine job. But this version of "The Dead" rarely quickens into theatrical life.

Copyright © 1999 Bergen Record Corp.