Literary masterpieces do not translate easily into other artistic mediums, which is why John Huston’s 1987 film adaptation of James Joyce’s classic short story “The Dead” was such a lovely surprise. Perhaps inspired by Huston’s masterful dramatization, American playwright Richard Nelson and Irish composer Shaun Davey have now brought the story to the stage, in a production that features one of the more extraordinary casts to be seen in New York this season: Christopher Walken and Blair Brown, Sally Ann Howes and Marni Nixon, Alice Ripley and Emily Skinner, Tony winners Stephen Spinella and Daisy Eagan, among others.
The resulting show is always thoughtful and admirable and honorable, occasionally wonderful. But it is also flawed; too much of the simple, subtle poetry of Joyce’s story is diluted by some key missteps and a fairly disastrous piece of miscasting. The sold-out run at Playwrights Horizons could doubtless be extended on the strength of the stellar cast, but the Broadway transfer that such an array of talent might suggest would likely be unwise.
Joyce’s story begins as a tribute to the generous embrace of Irish hospitality, and was inspired by his recollections of musical evenings at the home of his own great aunts. In the story, they become Julia and Kate Morkan (Howes and Nixon), aunts of Gabriel Conroy (Walken) who live with their niece Mary Jane (Skinner). The ladies are hosting an annual dinner dance to celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany, and have collected about them friends and family and pupils — all three ladies are teachers of voice or music.
In addition to Gabriel and his wife Gretta (Brown), the guests include the wayward and tipsy Freddy Malins (Spinella) and his reproving mother (Paddy Croft); Miss Molly Ivors (Ripley), a pert Irish nationalist who clashes briefly with Gabriel over politics; the elderly, jovial Mr. Browne (Brian Davies), an admirer of the Morkans; and Bartell D’Arcy (John Kelly), the guest of honor, an operatic tenor.
Joyce’s story is also a tribute to the joys and solaces of music, and its power to unlock the secrets of the heart. Musical performances at the party are described in detail, dinner conversation centers on great opera singers of the past, and the story’s culminating epiphany is set in motion when an air sung by Bartell D’Arcy awakens a painful memory in Gretta. Turning Joyce’s tale into a stage musical thus might seem a natural and relatively smooth process, but in fact it’s a delicate operation — Joyce is a deeply lyrical writer, so adding music to his story is a bit like interpolating new notes into a composer’s symphony.
When Davey’s music is embroidering Nelson’s mostly faithful, intelligent adaptation of the story, it is charming and effective. Most of the numbers are folk songs performed by the characters to entertain the party. Adapted by Nelson and Davey from extant Irish poems and lyrics, they comment nicely on the people who sing them: Ripley’s fiery Molly leads a rousing anthem celebrating the exploits of Irish nationalist Charles Parnell; Gretta and Gabriel, who have traveled a distance both geographical and metaphorical from the rest of the celebrants, duet on the mournful “Adieu to Ballyshannon”; Freddy sings a larking, bawdy tune. Davey’s melodies are sweet and spirited and melancholy, drawn from the flavors of traditional Irish music and eloquently performed by a small orchestra under the sensitive hand of musical director Charles Prince.
Adapter Nelson now shares directing credit with the originally announced Jack Hofsiss, and the results can be seen in the production’s sometimes puzzling staging. Some of the performers sing their songs virtually with their back to the audience, for example, and chairs are placed on the stage in a manner that at times makes for maximum obscurity. The idea may be to heighten the naturalism, but the effect is just the opposite.
Nevertheless, the actors have no trouble overcoming any awkwardnesses, and Nelson and Hofsiss are to be credited with orchestrating a finely calibrated ensemble performance. The cast are not all equally fine singers, but it hardly matters — the music they make as actors is quietly enthralling. They do indeed seem to be engaging each other in affectionate conversation, embracing friends with familiar jokes and fond recollections, and it is a pleasure to be in their company.
Nixon’s teary Aunt Kate and Howes’ dignified Aunt Julia have a sisterly rapport, and their performance of a mildly naughty tune called “Naughty Girls” is rapturous. These veteran actresses inhabit their roles with authority and affection, and their years of theatrical and musical experience imbue their turns with a soft radiance that is beautiful and elegaic, and entirely in keeping with the spirit of the play.
Spinella’s Freddy Malins, woozy with booze and the unbridled emotion it engenders, is the actor’s finest work on a New York stage since “Angels in America,” nimbly walking the fine line between comedy and pathos. Croft, a ringer for Margaret Hamilton’s Wicked Witch in her black crinoline, is astringently funny as Freddy’s scolding mother, Davies vivid and robust as the gallant Mr. Browne. The erstwhile Siamese twins of “Side Show” give nicely variegated performances in small roles: Skinner as the sweet and humble Mary Jane, Ripley as the tarter Molly. And Blair Brown is gently affecting as the gracious Gretta.
But the pivotal role in “The Dead” is Gabriel Conroy. For all the poignant, convivial charm of the party scene, the power of Joyce’s story is in its rich evocation of a single consciousness, Gabriel’s, as it moves through the evening, collecting impressions as a quiet fire builds in his heart (indeed in some ways the story is about the solitude of consciousness, the impossibility of sounding the heart and mind of another).
This kind of subjectivity is far easier to reproduce on film, where the camera can be used to emphasize the impressions of a single observer. Nelson has to use the more awkward device of narration to communicate Gabriel’s experience, and is further hampered by the fact that, in Walken’s dry performance, he is the least inviting presence onstage.
Indeed the actor is fatally miscast. Walken has a long stage history, but his diffident Gabriel seems to come from another universe than the one the play is evoking — the universe of a David Mamet play or a Martin Scorsese movie, for instance. His chilly blue eyes and deadpan manner sabotage the emotional arc of the play, as Gabriel’s heart is suffused with love and desire for his wife that is, in the play’s bleak final moments, heartrendingly thwarted. This simply doesn’t register in Walken’s performance.
But his miscasting isn’t the only factor in the muted effect of the production’s final moments, so unutterably moving in both the story and the Huston film. Nelson has chosen to foreshadow the concluding scene between Gretta and Gabriel by having Gabriel portentously refer to “the depths” that lie beneath the placid surfaces of everyday life, and Gretta hint early on at memories of a boy she once knew (it’s not D’Arcy’s song but a young music student’s that jars her memory). The result is to dilute the emotional effect of Gretta’s confession and its aftermath, to rob it of its strange, sudden force. And to set the glorious final words of Joyce’s story to music, as Nelson and Davey choose to do, is to gild the lily — they are already music as beautiful as any. (Huston wisely concluded his film with Donal McCann’s Gabriel reciting them as written.)
Although they never betray the meaning or spirit of the story, these and other small elisions and changes contribute to temper the production’s overall effectiveness. But they cannot erase the pleasures it does provide, of seeing artful performers bring to life Joyce’s richly human characters. When Howes’ Aunt Julia stands to sing a mournful folk song about a betrayal girl, the performer imbues three stanzas of song with a world of poetry. In Howes’ tremulous, still beautiful voice can be heard the whole history of Julia’s soul, the feast of feeling that fills a heart soon destined to be stilled.