Christmas: Nobel and Dana in James Joyce’s The Dead.
Flicker of Joyce
Joyce’s The Dead
by Richard Nelson, music by Shaun Davey, directed by Maggie
Mancinelli-Cahill Capital Repertory Theatre, Through April
James Joyce’s “The Dead,” the fi nal and most acclaimed story
in Dubliners, may appear to be a simple vignette of
an annual Christmas party in turn-of-the-century Dublin. Taken
as such, the party—thrown at the home of the aging Morkan
sisters and their young niece, musicians all—might be considered
good fodder for a lighthearted period musical, infused with
the hearty and haunting strains of Irish music. But “The Dead”
is not that simple, and much of the story’s significance has
been lost in translation between Joyce’s pen and the Broadway
stage. The book’s narrative passages, lifted verbatim from
“The Dead,” are exquisite. But it was Nelson’s task to craft
a powerful book to connect Joyce’s words and convey the story
in a new medium, and here the book fails.
Joyce’s story centers on Gabriel Conroy, favorite nephew of
the Morkan sisters, who serves also as narrator in the adaptation.
“The Dead” is largely autobiographical, and Gabriel’s discomfort
with every interaction reflects Joyce’s harsh criticism of
Irish society—the title references not only those passed,
but the living dead who plod through habitual lives. In the
story, the party is tinged with constraint and awkwardness.
The pivotal conflict and final clarity are private and internalized.
An uncomfortable party and a private transformation would,
of course, make for a dull Broadway musical, so Nelson navigates
the tale into jolly waters and unfurls a melodramatic marital
dispute for his dramatic climax. Joyce’s subtle study of character
and culture is lost, and the book is left floundering between
a shallow musical romp and anticlimactic tedium.
The score, which is mainly offered as naturally flowing party
entertainment performed by the hostesses and their various
guests, draws largely on traditional Irish texts and lyrics,
with original music composed by Shaun Davey. With the exception
of a few numbers—namely “Naughty Girls,” “Wake the Dead,”
“D’Arcy’s Aria” and “The Living and the Dead”—most of the
songs are entirely forgettable. The songs echo Irish folk
and turn-of-the-century art song, but without the purity and
passion that makes their inspirations endure.
The play’s format creates a huge challenge for the performers,
demanding them to serve as actors, singers, dan cers and multi-instrumentalists.
While some of the actors delivered powerful performances,
the production overall was extremely inconsistent. Many of
the ensemble numbers, while well executed, lacked the visceral
rhythm and energy of the best Irish music.
As Gabriel, Don Nobel delivers a conflicted, vulnerable and
confident performance, and proves adept at conveying the poetry
of Joyce’s words. Unfortunately, in her portrayal of Gabriel’s
wife, Gretta, Lezlie Dana offers little more than thready
vocals and fraught melodramatics. Carol Charniga presents
an intricate and delightful portrait of the fading Julia Morkan,
and Emily Mikesell easily steals her few scenes as the feisty
Molly Ivors. David Sutton tossed out his few well-timed one-liners
as Bartell D’Arcy, and briefly transformed the theater into
an opera house with his powerful second-act aria. The show’s
best performance came from David Girard, who created a deeply
complex and highly comic portrait of tippler Freddy Malins
from his first entrance, and boldly led the cast in the production’s
most vigorous number, “Wake the Dead.”
While director Maggie Mancinelli-Cahill does little to draw
Joyce’s underlying nuance from her actors (and stages an unfortunate
number of slow-motion party scenes under Gabriel’s narration),
she excels with her technical team. Thom Heyer’s period costumes
are richly detailed without being overstated, and the sepia
palette complements Ted Simpson’s set design. Since much of
the cast is onstage for the bulk of the play, the limited
space of Capital Repertory Theatre’s small stage presents
a challenge for the 13-actor musical. Heyer’s set is smartly
simple, creating a period home with a few carefully-selected
furniture pieces, candle sconces, parquet floor and baroque
scrim. The paneled scrim serves as wallpaper for much of the
production, dividing rooms when needed. But in the skilled
hands of Stephen Quandt, the same scrim is transformed from
wallpaper to heavenly incandescence to a beautifully backlit
garden gate, creating a handful of exquisite pictures in the
The scrim, while well used, also closes off a large portion
of the stage for much of the show, space that choreographer
Susan Caputo sorely needed. As a result, much of the choreography
is tight, measured and predictable. The few numbers that resound
with life and energy utilize the full stage space.
The final number, powerfully composed, beautifully staged,
and superbly performed by Nobel and cast, is one of the production’s
finest moments. Unfortunately, Nelson and Davey felt compelled
to rewrite Joyce’s poignant final lines, demonstrating to
the end their willingness to bastardize Joyce’s delicate poetics.