×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

James Joyce’s The Dead

There are some experiences so basic and common to all of us that simply bringing them out evokes primal force. One of them is the family get-together, with all of its cross-currents, histories, artifices, tensions, jokes and faithful hugs, however brief, made poignant by the knowledge that we all come from somebody, and most of the somebodies we come from are dead.

With:
Kate - Marni Nixon Julia - Sally Ann Howes Freddy Malins - Stephen Spinella D'Arcy - John Kelly Gretta - Faith Prince Gabriel - Stephen Bogardus Mary Jane - Donna Lynne Champlin Mr. Browne - Shay Duffin Mrs. Malins - Patricia Kilgarriff Molly Ivors - Alice Ripley Lily - Angela Christian

There are some experiences so basic and common to all of us that simply bringing them out evokes primal force. One of them is the family get-together, with all of its cross-currents, histories, artifices, tensions, jokes and faithful hugs, however brief, made poignant by the knowledge that we all come from somebody, and most of the somebodies we come from are dead.

It’s that urgent line, of the light of being alive pressing against the darkness that surrounds us, that carries us through “The Dead” and around some blurred lines and missteps in the Richard Nelson adaptation of James Joyce’s beautiful short story.

The setting is the Morkans’ annual Christmas dinner party at their upstairs rooms in Dublin, an event Aunt Julia and Aunt Kate, and their niece Mary Jane, have hosted in sumptuous style for 30 years.

Their regulars include nephew Gabriel Conroy and his wife Gretta; Mr. Browne, a dear friend even if he is Protestant; the dependably inebriated Freddy Malins and his long-suffering mother, Mrs. Malins; and the more recent arrivals, the testy nationalist Miss Molly Ivors and the opera singer Bartell D’Arcy.

Since it’s 1904, those present do what families everywhere did at the time: They gather around the parlor piano for song and dance. They tell jokes and stories. They reminisce, demur shyly from compliments and share fluttering covert anxieties and brief bitter memories. Gabriel will rise at dinner’s end to make his annual florid speech. The main difference this year is that Julia’s weak spells are more pronounced, and Gretta is held in unusual reveries.

For as long as Nelson’s adaptation (Shaun Davey did the music, and both conceived the lyrics) sticks to the pleasures of family and friends entertaining each other, or even in the way loved ones will recall an intimate song, the music seems natural. There are a couple of instances, however, when it just sounds like showbiz, and then the production feels false. Nelson has taken liberties with Joyce’s crystalline prose, which sometimes works, as when Gabriel narrates part of the story, but sometimes is theatrically overinflated — particularly at the end, when Joyce’s language, which itself aspires to music, is plenty lyrical enough and doesn’t need quite the melodic plumping up it gets here.

But there are a lot of subtleties in this production (Gabriel is too preoccupied with his speech to notice Gretta’s darkening mood) and one brilliant touch: reconceiving D’Arcy as a countertenor and not a tenor, so that his voice more closely evokes the loving 17-year-old boy in Gretta’s memory.

The ensemble generally works well, if sometimes obviously. Marni Nixon as Kate is expert at showing how a female host of a certain age can subtly dominate a table; Stephen Spinella is an endearingly loose-limbed drunken Freddy; and John Kelly sings D’Arcy’s song in just the way a beautifully impromptu moment will stop conversation and touch everyone in a room.

Sally Ann Howes’ Julia appeared empty and overstylized on opening night, and there wasn’t much going on inside Faith Prince’s Gretta — not even the emotions Gabriel attributes to her in front of our eyes.

Stephen Bogardus’ dignified performance as Gabriel is the more amazing for having survived two elements Nelson took away from Joyce’s portrayal: Gabriel’s unhappy knowledge that he’s given to fatuousness and the deep sensual hunger he feels for Gretta before she turns him away. Bogardus shows us how gentle kindness itself is an act of mortal courage.

Few leave the theater unmoved by “The Dead’s” final enveloping image of snow falling over Ireland and the world, over all the living and the dead — an evocation of being alone together.

James Joyce's The Dead

Ahmanson Theater; 1,600 seats; $65 top

Production: A Center Theater Group/Ahmanson Theater presentation, in association with Gregory Mosher and Arielle Tepper, of the Playwrights Horizon production of a musical play in one act, based on the short story by James Joyce. Directed by Richard Nelson. Book, Nelson.

Creative: Music, Shaun Davey; lyrics conceived and adapted by Nelson and Davey. Choreography, Sean Curran; sets, David Jenkins; costumes, Jane Greenwood; lighting, Jennifer Tipton; sound, Scott Lehrer; orchestrations, Shaun Davey; musical direction, Charles Prince. Opened and reviewed July 19, 21, 2000. Running time: 1 HOUR, 40 MIN.

Cast: Kate - Marni Nixon Julia - Sally Ann Howes Freddy Malins - Stephen Spinella D'Arcy - John Kelly Gretta - Faith Prince Gabriel - Stephen Bogardus Mary Jane - Donna Lynne Champlin Mr. Browne - Shay Duffin Mrs. Malins - Patricia Kilgarriff Molly Ivors - Alice Ripley Lily - Angela ChristianWith: Russell Arden Koplin, Brandon Sean Wardell, Stan Sharp, Britt Swensen.

More Legit

  • Hugh Jackman'To Kill a Mockingbird' Broadway

    'To Kill a Mockingbird's' Starry Opening: Oprah, Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway and More

    The Shubert Theatre in New York City last was filled on Thursday night with Oscar winners, media titans, and, of course, Broadway legends who came out for the opening of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” The starry guest list included Oprah Winfrey, Barry Diller, “Les Misérables” co-stars Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Gayle King, [...]

  • Pat Gelbart Obit Dead

    Actress Pat Gelbart, Wife of 'MASH' Creator, Dies at 94

    Pat Gelbart, widow of late “MASH” creator Larry Gelbart, died surrounded by family at her home in Westwood, Calif. on Dec. 11. She was 94. Gelbart was born in Minneapolis, Minn. in 1928 as Marriam Patricia Murphy. When she met her husband, Gelbart was an actress, known for the 1947 musical “Good News,” in which [...]

  • To Kill a Mockingbird review

    Broadway Review: 'To Kill a Mockingbird'

    Against all odds, writer Aaron Sorkin and director Bartlett Sher have succeeded in crafting a stage-worthy adaptation of Harper Lee’s classic American novel “To Kill a Mockingbird.” The ever-likable Daniels, whose casting was genius, gives a strong and searching performance as Atticus Finch, the small-town Southern lawyer who epitomizes the ideal human qualities of goodness, [...]

  • Isabelle HuppertIsabelle Huppert Life Achievement Award,

    Isabelle Huppert, Chris Noth to Appear on Stage in 'The Mother'

    Isabelle Huppert will appear opposite Chris Noth in the Atlantic Theater Company’s production of “The Mother.” It marks the U.S. premiere of the show. “The Mother” was written by French playwright Florian Zeller and translated by Christopher Hampton. Huppert, an icon of European film, was Oscar-nominated for “Elle” and appears in the upcoming Focus Features [...]

  • Could Anyone Follow ‘Springsteen on Broadway’?

    Could Anyone Follow 'Springsteen on Broadway'? Here Are Five Things They'd Need (Guest Column)

    After 235-odd shows, with grosses in excess of $100 million, a Special Tony Award and a hotly anticipated Netflix special debuting Sunday, “Springsteen on Broadway” is an unprecedented Broadway blockbuster. As with any success in entertainment, the rush to replicate The Boss’ one-man show reportedly is under way, with a consortium led by Live Nation, CAA [...]

  • Clueless review

    Off Broadway Review: 'Clueless' the Musical

    How does a musical stage adaptation of Amy Heckerling’s 1995 film comedy of oblivious privileged teens, “Clueless,” play in the era of female empowerment and millennial engagement? True, the principal skills of lead teen Cher Horowitz are the superficial ones of mall shopping and makeovers. But her sweet spirit and independence, plus some added P.C. relevance, [...]

  • Ley Line Unveils Brian Wilson Documentary,

    Ley Line Unveils Brian Wilson Documentary, 'Hugo Cabret' Musical

    Producers Tim Headington and Theresa Steele Page have unveiled Ley Line Entertainment with a Brian Wilson documentary and a “Hugo Cabret” musical in the works. Ley Line said it’s a content development, production, and financing company with projects spanning film, television, stage, and music. Headington financed and produced “The Young Victoria,” “Argo,” “Hugo,” and “World [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content