JAMES JOYCE’S THE DEAD James Joyce’s The Dead …

Written by Jonathan Kalb on . Posted in Posts, Theater.

Playwright’s Horizons
416 W. 42nd St.
(betw. 9th & 10th Aves.),

through Nov. 28.

The Deadly
1939, Henry Miller added his voice to the chorus of prestigious detractors who
had greeted James Joyce throughout his career: "At bottom there is in Joyce
a profound hatred for humanity–the scholar’s hatred. One realizes
that he has the neurotic’s fear of entering the living world, the world
of men and women in which he is powerless to function. He is in revolt not against
institutions, but against mankind."

The giveaway in this statement
is its broad brushwork, but like all calumny by the intelligently envious, it
is related to the truth, parasitic on the truth, tinted just enough with truth
to persuade many who lack the patience to look into the matter for themselves.
For all his magnificent fluidity, playfulness, wit, musicality and humane compassion,
Joyce was also a natural pedant who–given a tad less genius and a lot less
determination to stay out of Ireland–could have easily ended up as a musty,
old, cataloguing professor, or, more to the point, a moderately reputable literary
journalist trading on glibness and recycled ideas, like Gabriel Conroy, the
protagonist of his masterpiece "The Dead."

The autobiographical roots
of "The Dead," the magnificent final story in Dubliners, partly
explain the strength of its stunning and famous climactic epiphany, when the
spiritually deadened Gabriel ponders the winter scene outside his hotel window
and suddenly sheds the limited role of pathetic sufferer to become a redemptive
unifying figure for all humanity: "His soul swooned slowly as he heard
the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the
descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead."

The best compliment I can
pay to John Huston’s The Dead (1987)–his last film, which was
adapted by his son Tony and starred his daughter Anjelica and Donal McCann–is
that it handily avoided the trap of reducing Joyce’s work to an object
lesson about a humanity-hating literary neurotic in revolt against a "living
world" from which he feels excluded (to borrow Miller’s words). It
is an elegant, well-acted, seductively brooding film, which captures well the
trivial conversational surfaces and hints of abysses beneath at the late Christmas
season party in 1904 at which most of the story’s action takes place. Unfortunately,
precisely the opposite is true of Richard Nelson and Shaun Davey’s much
anticipated musical James Joyce’s The Dead, which is not only burdened
with a murky, low-energy performance by Christopher Walken as Gabriel but also
plagued with such a motley assortment of styles that it ends up seeming like
the torn victim of some behind-the-scenes parental struggle for which no saving
Solomon could be found.

Obviously, no film or stage
adaptation has a prayer of reproducing the beauties and effects of Joyce’s
prose, which limns whole characters with a phrase, plays sympathy for Gabriel
off his condescension and insularity in a hundred subtle ways, accomplishes
major transitions via slippages of thought inside his mind, and amasses enormous
cumulative power by dint of gradual changes in syntax, imagery and tone. Nevertheless,
I looked forward to this show, partly because the impressive gathering of musical
talent in the cast promised substantial pleasures of its own: Blair Brown, Sally
Ann Howes, Stephen Spinella, Marni Nixon, Alice Ripley, Emily Skinner, the performance
artist John Kelly. Also, Nelson’s declared ambition (mentioned in several
pre-opening interviews) to write a "Chekhovian musical" was interesting
in its own right. Sondheim and a few others have experimented with relatively
quiet, small-scale musicals able to support subtler human portraits and more
interiority than traditional extravaganzas do, and several chamber operas have
even been based on Chekhov’s own plays and stories, but no one has yet
produced the work that permanently establishes this new genre.

For reasons best known to
Nelson, however–whose codirector, Jack Hofsiss, abruptly left the production
in September–James Joyce’s The Dead never fully commits to
the goal of interiority. Walken narrates the action through occasional interior
monologues, delivering them so carelessly and impatiently (apparently in the
name of the casualness) that they end up seeming like clumsy exposition. Furthermore,
his makeup the night I attended was so flat and unshadowed, with his hair brushed
back in a stiff, unnatural wave, that he looked like an animated corpse. It’s
as if this actor had privately decided (again in the spirit of Henry Miller)
that Gabriel’s main function at the annual song-and-dance party of his
elderly aunts, Julia and Kate, and his cousin Mary Jane, was to dampen everyone’s
musical fun with his pensive superiority and morbidity. When asked to take his
turn performing for the guests, for instance, Walken’s Gabriel sings with
grating and exaggerated ineptitude.

Joyce’s purposes aside
(for it surely has little to do with them), this forced humility runs counter
to the spirit of Nelson’s basic concept, which is to organize the action
around a series of performances by the party guests for each other. Accompanied
by two onstage musicians and an offstage orchestra, much of the intermissionless
100-minute show consists of songs written by Davey to resemble old Irish favorites–sweet
pastoral love ballads, a patriotic anthem, an off-color barroom ditty and more,
all based on traditional airs and 18th- and 19th-century poems–which generate
a warm, rueful atmosphere into which the audience enjoys being pulled. This
concept has theatrical integrity, and–notwithstanding the odd decision
to have the actors sing frequently with their backs to the house–the better
performers (such as Brown, Spinella, Skinner and Ripley) project bright joyfulness
without leaping to levels of presentationalism that the fiction can’t bear.

The trouble is, about halfway
through the play this integrity disintegrates, as Nelson effectively gives away
the story’s ending. In Joyce, Gabriel’s wife Gretta hears a simple
folk song called "The Lass of Aughrim" just before leaving the party,
which reminds her of a young boy named Michael Furey who died for love of her
during her girlhood in Galway. In the musical, one of Mary Jane’s young
music students reminds Gretta (Brown) of Furey early on in the party, which
prompts her to sing her own suddenly remembered song, "Goldenhair,"
raising her husband’s passions and suspicions prematurely. Crassly expressing
his surprise while flattering himself that the song’s emotions are for
him, Gabriel breaks out into a melodramatic narration, right after she finishes,
that more or less destroys all vestigial subtlety in the plot. ("How I
desired her. My soul’s tender fire was heartier than I feared.")

Every song from that point
on is consequently anticlimactic and every reason for song thin to the point
of ludicrousness. Walken delivers Gabriel’s prepared toast to his aunts,
for instance, in dreary recitative, as if he’d been suddenly transplanted
into an operetta. The drunken Freddy Malins (Spinella) solves the problem of
a cheerless moment at one point by bursting into a rousing chorale called "Wake
the Dead," incongruously advancing the plot with lyrics as if the play
had suddenly become a book musical. Aunt Julia (Howes), collapsed on her bed
and apparently near death, performs a rejuvenating sentimental duet with her
younger self straight out of an infantile psychodrama. And even in the end,
with the show practically begging to be rushed to a songless conclusion to preserve
at least a shadow of its promised indirection and interiority, two painfully
literal, obscenely reductive numbers are appended for Gretta and Gabriel, making
Joyce’s glorious ending seem wholly ordinary.

In a letter to his brother,
Joyce once wrote: "I think a child should be allowed to take his father’s
or mother’s name at will on coming of age. Paternity is a legal fiction."
If this all too variegated musical could talk, I suspect it might deny all claimants
and ask to be adopted.


Saturday Night

by Arlene Phillips
Minskoff Theater,
1515 Broadway

(45th St.), 307-4100.

Speaking of miscast leads.
In 1977, when the movie Saturday Night Fever came out, I graduated high
school. I remember the universal envy, even worship, of John Travolta as if
it were yesterday. Another clear memory I have, though, is that no one I knew
had the slightest envy of Travolta’s character, the would-be escapee from
Brooklyn, Tony Manero. It was the actor and his flash, character and ability
to project self-consciousness and class beyond the story’s modest ambitions
that really compelled–along with the Bee Gees’ music, of course.

James Carpinello, the star
of this corporate-flavored, mechanical musical that recently opened on Broadway,
has none of these qualities. He can thrust his pelvis as well as anyone else,
but he can’t handle the singing, doesn’t project gang-leader confidence
and possesses an unfortunate crooked smile that looks for all the world like
a hideous sneer. This leaves, to my mind, just about no reason to see this show,
whose sexual politics are antediluvian, whose social politics are creaky and
obvious, and whose music is much better savored on records. I supposed you could
go to laugh at the ugly 70s clothes, but there, too, you’ll have a better
laugh in the East Village.