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

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:21

    Playwright's Horizons 416 W. 42nd St. (betw. 9th & 10th Aves.), 279-4200, through Nov. 28. The Deadly In 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 Fever 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.