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Critic: Simon Saltzman. Published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on January

26, 2000. All rights reserved.

`James Joyce’s The Dead’

On our way to a recent Sunday matinee performance of

"James Joyce’s The Dead," my wife and I met with another

critic

and his companion for an elegant brunch prepared especially for the

occasion by her at her Greenwich Village apartment. As an avid fan

of Joyce (she makes periodic pilgrimages to his grave and savors every

word in the collected works), our charming hostess embroidered the

Joycean accented meal of baked ham, Brussels sprouts, and mashed

potatoes,

with brief readings, asides and bon mots, just enough to whet the

appetites of those present who may not yet be totally familiar with,

and/or committed to, the Irish writer’s oeuvre. The pre-theater

culinary

treat peppered with culture was a great success. So with stuffed

bellies

and informed minds, we made our way uptown to the Belasco Theater,

where we separated, to meet again after the play’s intermission-less

performance.

Before I make any of my own comments about this play version with

music, which is quite different from John Huston’s haunting and lovely

1987 film version, it strikes me as relevant to share the immediate

reactions of four people, who, after a futile attempt to keep our

mouths shut and remain non-judgmental, let it all out. The following

are four judiciously edited remarks. The other critic: "It was

stunning and moving." Our hostess: "It was a desecration.

I was appalled." My wife: "I loved it. Christopher Walken

was wonderful." Me: "It was dead on its feet and so was

Walken."

No doubt the general reaction to this show will be similarly diverse

and diverting.

As it is in the story, "the show unfolds during the Christmas

season and mostly in the parlor of the Dublin home of three sisters,

music-loving aunts of the play’s point-of-view narrator and

participant

Gabriel Conroy. Three generations have gathered to share a tradition

of good music and food wherein each member of the family gets to sing

a song of his or her choice. These solos, on occasion augmented by

group participation, are performed with a restrained, often poignant

charm. These singular bits of musical moments, by way of Shaun Davey’s

original Irish-styled melodies and the less cleverly imagined lyrics

by Davey and Richard Nelson, give us gentle clues to each personality.

Nothing much in the way of dramatic conflict occurs, unless you

consider

a few discreet insinuations regarding someone’s drinking habits,

politics,

or some otherwise carefully veiled addictions and affections. The

time passes more ruefully than amusingly and neither the characters

nor we are moved much beyond the need to be polite (no one unwrapped

hard candy) and attentive (no snoring was heard).

That a feeling of aggregate ennui doesn’t enter into this affectionate

family gathering is partly due to Richard Nelson’s genially considered

adaptation (although it infuriated our hostess, who pointed out

specific

liberties taken with the "sacred" text). Nelson, who also

co-directed with Jack Hofsiss, leads the cast artfully through the

uneventful evening with a loving attention to their skillfully

addressed

idiosyncratic behavior, all indelibly ennobled by their mutual love

of music. To give you an example of a key dramatic moment, an argument

ensues over who is the best tenor of the age.

Oddly, only at the end of the play, when the ailing Julia is taken

to the bedroom following a fainting spell, does the wistful song of

her youth, "When Lovely Lady," come back to resonate for us

the sense of her own, soon-to-be extinguished loveliness.

And finally in their suite at the Gresham Hotel, while

Gretta, comforted by Gabriel, is haunted by a deeply personal memory,

the play does offer us something inquiring and intriguingly

impenetrable.

Maybe it wouldn’t be pure Joyce, but a few more secrets unleashed

would have helped. A clue to their relationship and to mixed feelings

that cannot be easily explained or revisited is offered earlier in

their sorrowful duet, "Adieu to Ballyshannon." Perhaps

something

more adventurous could have been done musically and lyrically without

tampering with the purity of the text. And perhaps leaving the

language

unadorned would have been best, after all.

What proves most frustrating is the quasi-reverential tone of the

piece, only offset by the sporadic incandescence of individual

performers.

Most notable of the company of 13 is Stephen Spinella, as Freddy,

the good-natured family drunkard, whose spirited delivery of "Wake

the Dead" does just that. That song and the rousing group step

dance that embroiders it (kudos to choreographer Sean Curran), unlike

the other songs, comes out of a situation: the response to the banging

on the ceiling by a disgruntled tenant in the apartment below.

At the opposite end of the performing scale, Walken seems to waffle

between insight and inertia, from being sensitive to the text’s

gracefulness

to a general disregard for the leading actor’s job: to sustain energy

and provide a palpable compelling hook on his character. There are

too many moments when Walken, who seems barely able to find or sustain

a musical note, appears to be wandering about in the shrouded mist

of his own memory rather than walking tall in the transporting

mystique

of Joyce’s biographical reveries.

The balance of the company is an impressive group of actors. Although

the two co-dependent stars of "Side Show," Alice Ripley and

Emily Skinner, are both members of the cast, Skinner was out with

the flu. Understudy Donna Lynne Champlin was a charming influence

in Skinner’s role of niece Mary Jane Morkan. Along with the

still-beautiful

voices of old-timers Sally Ann Howes as Aunt Julia, and Marni Nixon

as Aunt Kate, Champlin was a joyous centerpiece to their humorously

risque divertissement, "Naughty Girls." These three actors

provide the warmth of the sisters’ annual occasion to celebrate the

Feast of the Epiphany.

While no dramatic epiphanies occur, a few bracing moments are provided

by Ripley, as Miss Molly Ivers, the feisty Irish nationalist who locks

horns briefly with Gabriel; Blair Brown, as Gabriel’s gentle wife

Gretta; Paddy Croft, as Freddy’s annoyed, but forgiving, mother; John

Kelly, as the guest of honor and obligatory Irish tenor; and Brian

Davies, as the fun-loving old Mr. Browne. HH

— Simon Saltzman

James Joyce’s The Dead, Belasco Theater, 111 West 44

Street,

New York. Tele-Charge at 800-432-7250 or 212-239-6200. $25 to $75.

Through February 20.

Top Of Page
On Broadway

The key: HHHH Don’t miss; HHH

You won’t feel cheated;

HH Maybe you should have stayed home;

H Don’t blame us.

Amadeus HH Music Box, 239 West 45. By

Peter Schaffer.

Annie Get Your Gun H Marquis, Broadway &

46. Ticketmaster.

Tonys for the revival and its star Bernadette Peters.

Beauty and the Beast, Lunt-Fontanne, Broadway & 46.

Ticketmaster.

Cabaret HHH Studio 54, 254 West 54,

800-432-7250.

Cats HHH Winter Garden, 50 & Broadway.

Chicago HHHH Shubert, 225 West 44.

Dame Edna HHH Booth, 222 West 45. "The

Royal

Tour."

Footloose HH Richard Rodgers, 226 West 46.

Ticketmaster.

Fosse HHH Broadhurst, 235 West 44.

Tony-winner for

best new musical.

Jackie Mason, Golden, 252 West 45. "Much Ado About

Everything."

Jekyll & Hyde HH Plymouth, 236 West 45.

Kiss Me, Kate HHHH Martin Beck, 302 West

45. Cole

Porter revival with verve.

Les Miserables HHH Imperial, 249 West 45.

Miss Saigon HHHH Broadway, 53 and

Broadway.

Putting It Together, Barrymore, 243 West 47. Carol Burnett

in Stephen Sondheim’s revue. To February 20.

Rent HHHH Nederlander, 208 West 41.

Ticketmaster.

Saturday Night Fever HH Minskoff, 45

Street west

of Broadway. Ticketmaster.

Swing!, St. James, 246 West 44.

The Lion King HHHH New Amsterdam,

Broadway &

42, 212-307-4747.

The Phantom of the Opera HHH Majestic,

247 West

44.

The Price HHH Royale, 242 West 45. By

Arthur

Miller.

Waiting in the Wings H Walter Kerr, 219

West

48. Noel Coward starring Lauren Bacall and Rosemary Harris.

Wrong Mountain, Eugene O’Neill, 230 West 49.

— Simon Saltzman

Top Of Page
Ticket Numbers

Unless otherwise noted, all Broadway reservations can be made

through Tele-Charge at 800-432-7250 or 212-239-6200. For

Ticketmaster

listings call 800-755-4000 or 212-307-4100.

For information on Broadway and Off-Broadway shows, music, and dance

call NYC/On Stage at 212-768-1818, a 24-hour performing arts hotline.

The TKTS same-day, half-price ticket booth at Times Square (Broadway

& 47th) is open daily, 3 p.m. to 8 p.m. for evening performances;

10 a.m. to 2 p.m. for Wednesday and Saturday matinees; and noon to

closing for Sunday matinees.


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