Joyce's Dead Occasionally Delightful

A Review of James Joyce The Dead

Review by Christopher Isherwood
LA Times, November 5, 1999.

NEW YORK--James Joyce's The Dead (Musical; Playwrights Horizons; 141 seats; $50; 1:40)
 By Charles Isherwood, Daily Variety Chief Theater Critic

Literary masterpieces do not translate easily into other artistic media, which is why John Huston's 1987 film adaptation of James Joyce's classic short story "The Dead" was such a lovely surprise.

Perhaps inspired by Huston's masterful dramatization, American playwright Richard Nelson and Irish composer Shaun Davey have now brought the story to the stage, in a production that features one of the more extraordinary casts to be seen in New York this season: Christopher Walken and Blair Brown, Sally Ann Howes and Marni Nixon, Alice Ripley and Emily Skinner, Tony winners Stephen Spinella and Daisy Eagan, among others.

The resulting show is always thoughtful and admirable and honorable, occasionally wonderful. But it is also flawed; too much of the simple, subtle poetry of Joyce's story is diluted by some key missteps and a fairly disastrous piece of miscasting.

Joyce's story begins as a tribute to the generous embrace of Irish hospitality, and was inspired by his recollections of musical evenings at the home of his own great aunts. In the story, they become Julia and Kate Morkan (Howes and Nixon), aunts of Gabriel Conroy (Walken) who live with their niece Mary Jane (Skinner). The ladies are hosting an annual dinner dance to celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany, and have collected about them friends and family and pupils -- all three ladies are teachers of voice or music.

In addition to Gabriel and his wife Gretta (Brown), the guests include the wayward and tipsy Freddy Malins (Spinella) and his reproving mother (Paddy Croft); Miss Molly Ivors (Ripley), a pert Irish nationalist who clashes briefly with Gabriel over politics; the elderly, jovial Mr. Browne (Brian Davies), an admcting as the gracious Gretta.

But the pivotal role in "The Dead" is Gabriel Conroy. For all the poignant, convivial charm of the party scene, the power of Joyce's story is in its rich evocation of a single consciousness, Gabriel's, as it moves through the evening, collecting impressions as a quiet fire builds in his heart (indeed in some ways the story is about the solitude of consciousness, the impossibility of sounding the heart and mind of another).

This kind of subjectivity is far easier to reproduce on film, where the camera can be used to emphasize the impressions of a single observer. Nelson has to use the more awkward device of narration to communicate Gabriel's experience, and is further hampered by the fact that, in Walken's dry performance, he is the least inviting presence onstage.

Indeed the actor is fatally miscast. Walken has a long stage history, but his diffident Gabriel seems to come from another universe than the one the play is evoking -- the universe of a David Mamet play or a Martin Scorsese movie, for instance. His chilly blue eyes and deadpan manner sabotage the emotional arc of the play, as Gabriel's heart is suffused with love and desire for his wife that is, in the play's bleak final moments, heartrendingly thwarted. This simply doesn't register in Walken's performance.

But his miscasting isn't the only factor in the muted effect of the production's final moments, so unutterably moving in both the story and the Huston film. Nelson has chosen to foreshadow the concluding scene between Gretta and Gabriel by having Gabriel portentously refer to "the depths" that lie beneath the placid surfaces of everyday life, and Gretta hint early on at memories of a boy she once knew (it's not D'Arcy's song but a young music student's that jars her memory). The result is to dilute the emotional effect of Gretta's revelation.