On the surface, it would seem impossible to make a musical version of the James Joyce’s “The Dead.” But when you look at the masterful short story again, you see that it’s full of music. Most of it takes place at a holiday party thrown each year by the Misses Morkan, two elderly music teachers and their spinsterish niece, at which the guests dance and sing and eat and drink to excess. And the plot, such as it is, turns on a scrap of song that triggers a memory of passionate love and forever changes the lives of Gabriel Conroy, the story’s main character, and his wife Gretta.

The production that has opened last week Off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons, which calls itself “James Joyce’s ‘The Dead,’” has plenty of music by Irish composer Shaun Davey. And the directors, Jack Hofsiss and Richard Nelson (the latter also adapted the story for the stage), have assembled an extraordinary multigenerational ensemble of legendary performers. They range from Daisy Eagan, the wee lass who won a 1991 Tony Award for her leading role in “The Secret Garden,” to performance artist John Kelly, to Marni Nixon, who famously provided the soundtrack for non-singing movie-musical stars such as Natalie Wood (“West Side Story”) and Audrey Hepburn (“My Fair Lady”). The star of the show (whose sold-out run ends November 14), is Christopher Walken, who started out as a song-and-dance man but hasn’t been seen in that guise since he danced on the bar in his boxer shorts in Herbert Ross’s 1981 movie “Pennies from Heaven.”

Yet for all the talent on hand, the evening is a surprising disappointment. And despite the proprietary brand name, it may be a version of “The Dead,” but it’s not James Joyce’s.

The first of four scenes begins promisingly as the guests gather in the parlor of Aunt Kate (Ms. Nixon) and Aunt Julia (Sally Ann Howes) to entertain one another with songs and dances. In Dublin in 1904, everybody sings, and everybody dances. And where else but at an Irish celebration would ballads about grief and shame and melancholy pass for party fare? Through this recital and the subsequent dinner, we get the sense of a tight-knit family’s traditions. The oft-told tales and personal quirks register sometimes as warm and cozy, sometimes as oppressive to Gabriel (Mr. Walken), who stands slightly apart as the story’s narrator, just as Joyce exiled himself from Irish culture to immortalize it in his work.

Very quickly into the evening, however, Nelson and Davey reveal their heavy-handedness, discarding the delicacy of Joyce’s nuances and pounding Significance home with a jackhammer. Where Joyce establishes Gabriel’s political neutrality by having Miss Molly Ivors tweak him about writing for an English newspaper and forsaking Ireland for vacations on the continent, the adaptors turn Miss Ivors (Alice Ripley) into an Irish nationalist firebrand, leading the crowd in a song about “Parnell’s Plight.” And while Joyce’s story presents elderly Aunt Julia’s frailty as an understated intimation of mortality, here Aunt Julia (played by an actress who looks neither frail nor particular elderly) practically has a stroke in the middle of dinner and takes to her bed. All for drama, yes, but with a clumsiness that is distinctly un-Joycean.

Nelson and Davey take further liberties with Joyce in one gigantic way that misfires. In the story, as he prepares to leave the party, Gabriel notices his wife standing on the stairs, transfixed by the sound of a party guest, the semi-famous tenor Bartlett D’Arcy (John Kelly’s role), singing “The Lass of Aughrim.” In the privacy of their hotel room, Gretta reveals to Gabriel the significance of the song. She first heard it sung by a delicate boy she once loved, Michael Furey, who though he had tuberculosis stood in the rain to say goodbye to her and died a week later at the age of seventeen.

In this version, Gretta (Blair Brown, fresh from playing Fraulein Schneider on Broadway in “Cabaret”) lays eyes on a young student of Mary Jane’s who reminds her of Michael Furey and sings, in a craggy sweet voice reminiscent of Judy Collins, a dream-like reverie called “Goldenhair.” Gabriel catches on and conceives a jealousy that smolders all night until he gets her alone in the hotel room.

Then he turns cold and accusatory like Othello. She weeps and begs like Desdemona. In the Joyce story, Gabriel inwardly compares his own heart to that of a tubercular boy who will stand in the rain to see the girl he loves and realizes he’s lived a life without passion. But Joyce plants the seeds that tell us Gabriel still has a chance to connect with life. (This was the best part of John Huston’s otherwise unsatisfying 1987 movie adaptation of “The Dead,” which starred Anjelica Huston as Gretta.)

Onstage, the story boils down to that of a man threatened by his wife’s past romance. Walken’s performance doesn’t help. Weirdly distracted and disconnected in the early scenes, he seems downright menacing and on the verge of violence in the final tableau.

If this production had the courage of its revisionism, it would end with Walken slowly, slowly choking Brown as the grim-faced chorus gathered around the piano sings, “Snow will be falling upon the living and the dead.”

But it doesn’t.

Philadelphia Inquirer, November 7, 1999

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