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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
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
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
treat peppered with culture was a great success. So with stuffed
and informed minds, we made our way uptown to the Belasco Theater,
where we separated, to meet again after the play’s intermission-less
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
No doubt the general reaction to this show will be similarly diverse
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
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
a few discreet insinuations regarding someone’s drinking habits,
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
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
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
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
more adventurous could have been done musically and lyrically without
tampering with the purity of the text. And perhaps leaving the
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
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
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
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
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
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— Simon Saltzman
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