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James Joyce’s The Dead
Report on the First Preview
by Wendy Guida

James Joyce I had the great pleasure of attending the first preview of this new play on October 1. Though we were warned at the start of the show that some cast members were suffering from a bad virus and might have to speak parts of their songs, this problem was not obvious in their performances.

The Dead, “a play with music” based on the short story of the same name by James Joyce, is set at a Christmas-time party at the home of the Misses Morkan in Dublin at the turn of the last century. During the course of this party, the various guests are called upon to sing songs, many of which reveal truths about their lives or the inner workings of their hearts. The touching memory of a lost love is expressed in Aunt Julia’s “When Lovely Lady,” while the delicate intimacy of the love between Gretta and Gabriel is apparent in their duet, “Adieu to Ballyshannon.”

The direction of the play clearly strives for realism, so that when the characters perform their songs, they sometimes have their backs to the audience. At first I was alarmed by this, but then I realized that the world on the stage was real for the length of the play, and the staging would not contrive to make the actors to face the audience at all times. Except for the times when Christopher Walken broke the fourth wall to address the audience directly, the stage and the people on it were transported to cozy rooms in Ireland at the end of the last century. Despite the fame of many of the performers, I completely forgot, as I watched, that they were actors. I was absorbed by the truth of what was on that stage. This is unusual for me; I more often react to an outstanding performance by thinking, even if only for a moment, “Wow... Stokes really nailed that song,” or “Look...Audra is shedding real tears.”

If there is a recording of the music from this show, I will be first in line to buy it. Shaun Davey’s melodies are exquisite, with a strong influence of Irish folksongs. His melodies are lovely and then drop into the saddest chords and beautiful harmonies. There is always the mingling of the joyful and the melancholy, which echoes Gabriel’s intense, yet ultimately marred, love for Gretta. By the time Blair Brown, as Gretta, sings “Michael Furey,” her simple song is able to ring out every note of the poignancy of her past. The show builds slowly and steadily to this extraordinary moment which is then completed by Gabriel’s response in “The Living and the Dead.”

Christopher Walken, as Gabriel Conroy, is a wonder. He has a reputation for playing rather frightening characters and this show, to his credit, dispels any idea that he can only play that type of role. I hope this show is not transferred to a much larger theatre (though I do sincerely hope its run is extended), because only in a theatre of this size can the audience appreciate the understatement of his performance. Gabriel is a restrained man unused to showing emotion, and Walken is able, through the subtlest of gestures, to convey what would take a lesser actor much more emoting to express. Each smile or caress is heightened by its rarity.

Blair Brown looked beautiful in a rich red velvet gown (at least it looked like velvet from where I sat) and she just glows with warmth in the role. She and Christopher Walken have such a tenderness between them, and she "acts" her songs honestly.

The amazing thing about the rest of the cast is that even the more well-known performers were lost in their roles...and I mean that in the best sense. It took a while to figure out who they were because they were each an integral part of the ensemble. Marni Nixon did not have as big a singing part, surprisingly, as Sally Ann Howes, who played her sister, but they were charming in their duet "Naughty Girls." Stephen Spinella gave a very complex performance as a spirited young man who drinks too much, and thus incurs his mother's censure, but who also has a very life-affirming nature. He's the kind of relative who might ruin a family gathering or be the life of it.

What I really loved was the sense of community on stage. My family tends to banish people, but in the world of this play there is room for black sheep.

The production is not perfect yet, but what a show it will be if its first preview was so exceptional. Lucky you, those of you who were able to secure tickets early on, for at the moment the entire run is sold out. Perhaps if enough interest is shown, the run will be extended. I, for one, have my fingers and toes crossed.

The Dead, book by Richard Nelson, based on James Joyce’s story of the same name. Music by Shaun Davey. Lyrics conceived and adapted by Richard Nelson and Shaun Davey. Directed by Jack Hofsiss and Richard Nelson. Scenic Design by David Jenkins. Costume Design by Jane Greenwood. Lighting Design by Jennifer Tipton. Sound Design by Scott Lehrer. Orchestrations by Shaun Davey. Music Direction by Charles Prince. Choreographed by Sean Curran. Starring (in alphabetical order): Blair Brown, Paddy Croft, Brian Davies, Daisy Eagan, Dashiell Eaves, Sally Ann Howes, John Kelly, Brooke Sunny Moriber, Marni Nixon, Alice Ripley, Emily Skinner, Stephen Spinella and Christopher Walken.

Theatre: Playwrights Horizons, 416 West 42nd Street.

Schedule: Tues. - Fri. at 8pm; Sat. at 3pm & 8pm; Sun. at 3pm & 7pm.

Tickets: $50, but the entire run is sold out for all performances. If you wish to call and leave your name and address in case there is an extension of the run, please call (212) 279-4200.


-- Wendy Guida