Eulogy for The Dead

Early on in James Joyce's The Dead, the narrator says that humanity is like a frozen lake beneath which is “an unimaginable depth.” This musical adaptation of the Irish novelist's short story turned out to be an unimaginable depth beneath which was a frozen play.

The Dead died an untimely death at Belasco Theatre in New York, where its run is scheduled to end April 16. Yet there was much to commend in the production. It was one of the few works of this (or any) season that focuses primarily on humanity and seriously contemplates the inner desires of the human heart. The lofty goal of the work may not have been fully realized, but the effort was obvious, and it resulted in some inspired direction, fine performances — and a subtle commentary on the Catholic faith.

Set entirely in the parlor of the aging Morkan sisters in turn-of-the-century Dublin, The Dead invited us to look in on an annual Yuletide sing-along instigated by Aunt Julia (Sally Ann Howes), Aunt Kate (Marni Nixon) and their niece Mary Jane (Emily Skinner). The guests include a pair of drunks, some old maids, an opera singer and the lead characters: the Conroys, a disillusioned, drifting married couple.

The husband, Gabriel Conroy, was played by the production's marquee player, Christopher Walken (he won a best-supporting-actor Oscar for his role in 1978's The Deer Hunter); he also narrated the story. From his entry onward, Walken seemed to have stumbled in from a bar. Eyes watering, he wandered about the stage introducing the other characters in that halting, distracted manner that has become his trademark in the movies. There were moments during this lifeless litany of facts when even his attention seemed to wander. He gazed at the floor, then up to the balcony and, after a scratch and a sniffle, he continued his expositional recital as if trying hard to recall his lines. Was the mental lapse part of his characterization of Conroy or was it just that Walken hasn't rehearsed? It's impossible to tell, but either way the lack of focus was an off-putting way to start a play.

But Walken's co-stars more than made up for his confusion. In particular, on the night I saw the show, Blair Brown (of “Molly Dodd” TV fame) breathed loads of life into Greta Conroy, Walken's (much) better half in the piece. With grace, elegance and understated charm, Brown put some real meaning into a rather skimpy role. Clearly immersed in the part, she revealed her character's interior life even in the long lapses between her lines. A slight tilt of the head here, a slow shift of the eyes there, and Greta's loneliness and bittersweet regret filled the theater. When she finally gave herself over to song, it was, thanks to Blair's earnestness, an achingly beautiful moment. Her performance was a great example of an actress transcending a script. Unfortunately, she has since left the cast.

Picking up the slack, the ensemble behind the foundering couple did yeoman's work here. Nixon (the film singing voice of Natalie Wood in West Side Story and Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady) was heartbreaking as Aunt Kate. Howes beautifully projected the disappointment of Aunt Julia, recently bounced from her church choir. Stephen Spinella, in the tipsy personage of Freddy Malins, provoked some much-needed laughs. And Alice Ripley truly shone as Molly Ivors, presenting an instantly believable flirt without benefit of much spoken dialogue.

Undercurrent of Faith

One of the striking things about this piece is its subtle commentary on the Catholic faith in the time and place of its setting — and maybe in our own time and place. With the exception of one character, all seem to be Catholic. Aunt Julia is a regular vocalist at Immaculate Conception Parish. Another character is planning a retreat at a monastery.

It is these fleeting references that unlock the mystery and depth of The Dead, as the Catholic faith is a backdrop to all that happens. It is everywhere and nowhere. As in many Catholic cultures, faith is an afterthought. Still, at this party, beneath the reverie, there is a sense that judgment is just around the corner and none will escape. In one of the rousing group numbers, the entire party sings, “Wake the dead / They've slept long enough and they'll soon be asleep again.”

These are people who are, each in their own way, already dead. Dead in faith, dead in works, they aimlessly repeat their set of ritualistic activities as they creep inexorably toward the grave. Well-fed yet starving for meaning, they're recognizable as some Catholics of our own time. Unfortunately, this theme is so well camouflaged that the average Catholic theatergoer will likely miss it.

Outside Looking In

If The Dead achieved anything significant, it may be the most unexpected way in which it connected a performance with its audience.

Defying convention, director Richard Nelson has created an impenetrable, imaginary “fourth wall” between players and patrons. Directing the actors to sing their songs to one another, Nelson frequently had them turn their backs to the audience. Even the scenes are played without regard for the crowd. Yet, where one might imagine this would alienate viewers, it actually added to the mystery of the piece and created an intimacy that forced the audience to look and listen more closely. At one point I found myself actually staring at an actor's scapular, hoping it would tell me something about the scene. (It did.)

And it wasn't just me. You'd be hard-pressed to find a more attentive audience. They sat rapt like hungry hounds beneath a dining-room table, waiting for any scrap of information that might fall their way. Part of this owed to the bare-bones script, which tells very little about the people we're looking at, but I think it owed even more to Nelson's decision to have the action itself play “hard to get” with the audience. Very clever, and quite effective.

On the down side, the show was about as uplifting as an orphanage on Mother's Day. Shaun Davey's maudlin music, written to some antique Irish poems, failed to take flight. Similarly, Richard Nelson's script never escaped the ghost of the Joyce story. Like all Joyce's work, “The Dead” is deeply interior, finding its movement in interior realizations rather than in any bold actions on the part of the characters. To substitute for the lack of dramatic action in the short story, Nelson allows the musical to wallow in an atmosphere of melancholy.

Though a sense of genuine sadness filled the theatre, the audience really couldn't quite connect with these people because they did so little. Like John Huston's 1987 film adaptation of the same story, the play is a grand attempt at a work that may defy dramatization. Still, its delicacy, sense of faith and excellent ensemble work made the death of James Joyce's The Dead sad news.

Raymond Arroyo, news director of EWTN, writes from Birmingham, Alabama.