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Himself and Nora

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - June 6, 2016

Matt Bogart and Whitney Bashor
Photo by Matthew Murphy

Lovers of literature rightly treasure the works of James Joyce, who through his poetry and fiction—particularly his landmark novels Ulysses and Finnegan's Wake—uniquely captured the existential ennui of turn-of-the-20th-century Ireland and beyond with a lacerating voice and wrenching Everyman honesty. Sadly, only die-hard Joyce fans are likely to be transported, or for that matter roused, by Jonathan Brielle's musical portrait of the artist as a dying man, Himself and Nora, which just opened at the Minetta Lane Theatre.

Operating on the theory that Joyce's life was as exciting as the chronicles he penned, the show begins with Joyce (Matt Bogart) on his literal deathbed (post mortem, mind you), silently listening to his barking wife, Nora (Whitney Bashor), deliver one last outraged but loving tirade. Joyce is then thrust back, as if in his last conscious second, to reexperience his life, from the personal tragedy surrounding his father (Michael McCormick) to the constant, disapproving gaze of the Catholic Church (as represented by a nearly omnipresent priest played by Zachary Prince). But the focus is mainly on the downs, ups, and further downs of James and Nora as exiles to Italy from their homeland, and eventually, thanks to James's simultaneously deteriorating health and skyrocketing career, from each other.

Despite the superficial similarities, however, Sunday in the Park With George this is not. James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim's acclaimed musical about a similarly salty artist, Georges Seurat, digs deeper into not just Seurat's inspiration, but also into inspiration itself and its unavoidable ramifications as much as a century down the line. Brielle has written a straightforward musical biography that attacks the essential points as if a hit-and-run collision, then careens on to the next in the traditional (and traditionally tedious) take-no-chances manner. It's not so much that you don't learn much about Joyce—the middle half hour, straddling the intermission, covers with exhausting detail the crafting and publication of Ulysses—but that it's all so dry and prosaic that you don't care about the things you do learn.

This seems to be because, although Brielle's compositions (he also did their orchestrations and arrangements) have the proper Irish lilt (the relatively lively musical direction is by James Sampliner), overall he has not been energized by the musical storytelling form. The songs don't take us anywhere we couldn't go without them, and they often dally along much longer than is necessary to make their few minor points—when there are any to make at all. If this is inherently musical material, Brielle doesn't convince us.

For example, although James and Nora spent most of their many years together unmarried, little defines their unusual relationship beyond their rickety seduction number, "Compatriots in Lust," which tries (and fails) to equate verbal sparring with foreplay, with James waxing poetic and Nora realistic ("You're my sweetheart / Canary / Dearest Bird," he sings; "Vagabonds / Beggars / Cunning fool" she interjects). James later attempts to teach Italians about Ireland with "River Liffey," a list song that rattles off a bevy of tongue-twisting Emerald Isle locales for no reason I could determine. (It's accompanied by similarly superfluous Irish step dancing, courtesy of choreographer Kelli Barclay.) Ditto the choppy, time-killing duets for Ezra Pound (McCormick) and Harriet Weaver (Lianne Marie Dobbs), and James and Nora's whiny adult children (Prince and Dobbs) that play as though trying to contextualize static.

Nora's repudiation of James's self-aggrandizement is lyrically specific ("Ya stubborn, sorry sod / I put ya above my very own God. / But ya betray, ya belittle / Do you like what you see? / A woman who can't love, / That's what ya've made of me") but also bloodless, as though it exists only because the character cried out for a belty 11-o'clock number, not because she had anything to say in one. For her part, though, Bashor throws herself into it acting-wise to make it a moment of channeled intensity; that it doesn't go anywhere hardly matters given her forcefulness. That quality extends throughout the rest of the evening, and is the most noteworthy aspect of anyone's performance, though Bogart tries valiantly to uncover layers in James and McCormick puts the considerable weight of his likability behind making something of his series of bit parts. Neither succeeds, but you have to applaud them for trying.

As for everyone else, it's a harder sell. With the exception of the sets (a ghostly, faux-stone ballroom by Paul Tate dePoo III), costumes (Amy Clark), and moody lighting (Jason Lyons), Himself and Nora has not changed in any significant ways since its dreary Manhattan premiere at the 2012 New York Musical Theatre Festival. (Bush directed it there, too, with Bogart but an otherwise different cast.) In that time, no one has discovered any new energy or urgency in any part of it, and neither its meaning, nor its central characters, have been explored with tangibly greater acuity.

But if this is a snob hit, it's not for theatre snobs—you know, the types who will argue endlessly about the relative merits of the works of Sondheim, Michael John LaChiusa, Adam Guettel, and other writers of their ilk. They take huge risks in pursuit of big ideas and bigger rewards, and, when they fail, do so every bit as spectacularly as they succeed. Sure, you can make a harmless, juiceless musical about James Joyce, but Brielle never explains through it why he wanted to. His love for Joyce's writings is admirable, but the solutions to his show's myriad problems can be found in the type of first-rate musical-theatre literature Himself and Nora too often, and too flagrantly, ignores.

Himself and Nora
Through September 4
Minetta Lane Theatre, 18 Minetta Lane off of 6th Avenue between Bleecker and West 3rd Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Ticketmaster

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