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by Margaret Croyden

Photo of Margaret Croyden
Margaret Croyden is a theater reviewer and essayist for the New York Theatre Wire.

"James Joyce's The Dead"-- A Welcome Addition
The Belasco Theater
111 West 45th Street
(212) 239-6200
opened January 21, 2000
Reviewed February 3, 2000 by Margaret Croyden
To dramatize "The Dead," James Joyce's famous short story, would be a challenge for anyone, but to produce it as a musical is indeed brave. So it is a pleasure to assure Joyce readers that the book and lyrics by Richard Nelson and music (and lyrics) by Shaun Davey have succeeded in this daring venture. Not that the production is perfect--it has many flaws--but on the whole, the director and composer have assembled a company of actors, none of whom are first class singers, and some not singers at all, who manage to capture the tone, quality and ambiance of the Irish middle class at the turn of the century that is entirely faithful to the Joyce work.

"The Dead" is not a complicated story. The time is Christmas in Dublin; it is snowing heavily and two maiden sisters, Julia and Kate (Sally Ann Howes and Mari Nixon) and their niece Mary Jane (Emily Skinner) have invited a number of guests including a favorite nephew, Gabriel (Christopher Walken) and wife ( Blair Brown) to their annual Christmas dinner party. The guests sing, dance, argue, tell stories and, in their inimitable Irish manner, enjoy themselves. Underneath the gaiety there is a certain sadness and apprehension, even dread. The plot has no real development but the underlying sub text--and the acting--express the angst of the characters, their fears and self-doubts, their hidden anxieties, the complexities of their lives, and their loving and touching family relationships.

Aunt Julia, seriously ill, continually harps on the past, and apologizes for having lost her singing voice; the nephew, Gabriel, mysterious, withdrawn, and distracted, and for all his intelligence and sophistication, worries that he is unable to express the appropriate appreciation in his toast to his aunts; his wife Gretta, while always pleasantly smiling and ostensibly content, is, in reality haunted by her first dead lover whose image, unbeknownst by her husband, has marred their marriage.

The couple, seemingly happy at the party, are a melancholy pair when alone in their hotel room. As they contemplate their predicament, the snow is increasing heavy and in a soulful song, Gabriel sings of the snow "falling on the living and on the dead." Though it is a simple melody it resonates as a philosophical coda and as the antithesis of the joy of Christmas and brings to the surface thoughts of dead lovers and the immense and unavoidable tragedy of dying.

But the production is far from morbid; the party scenes are filled with dancing--Irish style--and adorable moments of fun. However, one of the weakness in the production is its excessive overlay of dancing, so that the work begins to resemble a Broadway musical and almost loses its charm. Also, we look forward to hearing the inimitable Joyce prose, particularly at the end of the story, but instead we are subjected to yet another two arias. Although touching, the songs weaken the story's resolve, and are no substitute for Joyce's lines. Besides the lyrics of some of the songs are adapted from other sources than Joyce--which is a mystery. Still the evening is not spoiled.

As Gabriel, Christopher Walken is a pleasant surprise, albeit he lacks the necessary Irishness. Nevertheless, he brings a welcome sweetness and a laconic ambivalence to the role that is finally touching if not altogether appropriate. After seeing Walken in those unappealing monster roles in films, one thinks of him as a hoodlum type, so to see him tender, soft, and gentle is appealing. Blair Brown, always a fine actress is perfect, although her unattractive red wig is a mistake. Nonetheless, she projects a sweet charm, and with her engaging smile, she attracts the audience, even when the focus is elsewhere. The actors are uniformly good; the company is a fine example of ensemble acting so that every role is well integrated into the whole.

Richard Nelson, who also directed the production, should be very pleased that "The Dead" it is just as beautiful in the Belasco theater as when it opened at the smaller house. Nothing has been lost. And this is grand. A larger audience now has a chance to enjoy this very lovely production in an old, lovely theater. And that is how it should be. [Croyden]

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