With Irish author James Joyce's famous short story "The Dead," Richard Nelson and Shaun Davey make the worst mistake available to adapters of great literary work — trying to improve on the original.
In their quasi-musical James Joyce's "The Dead" — the possessive case makes the title no truer than Francis Ford Coppola calling his vampire movie Bram Stoker's "Dracula" — Nelson and Davey, not content to let Joyce's story speak for itself, add incident, alter characterization, give narration to the one figure least apposite to that purpose, and vulgarize the material with a raucous abandon suited more to the music hall so beloved of one of its characters than to the graceful holiday gathering of the story's elderly social matriarchs. There well may be an exquisite little musical to be made from "The Dead," arguably the most honored of all English-language short stories; but as the current Burning Coal Theatre Company production amply demonstrates, this isn't it.
Regarding "The Dead," I'm reminded of Shaw's epithet to Gabriel Pascal when presented with the notion of musicalizing his most famous play: "If Pygmalion is not good enough for your friends with its own verbal music, their talent must be altogether extraordinary." (It was, as it turned out.)
Richard Nelson's talent as a playwright is also extraordinary, but he approaches the story schizophrenically: when he stays true to Joyce, he does so with scrupulous fealty; when he alters, he is profligate in the extreme. Ditto Shaun Davey's songs, which are more like incidental bits drawn from here (Joyce's narrative voice) and there (Irish folk-song) but which do nothing so mundane as reveal, or even reflect, character.
Invoking in these pages the 1987 John Huston film of "The Dead," the play's director, Rebecca Holderness, said, "It's beautiful, but a bit somber and dark. We are really kicking up our heels with this one, which is, I honestly think, more in the spirit of Joyce, no?"
No. In Huston's rich, elegiac final statement as a filmmaker, the music was altogether Joycean: its language, sense of time, place and observation, and characterizations reflected and amplified the feel of the original author's intention. The story itself is dark. The surface trappings of holiday cheer cannot be separated from the descending arc of its central character Gabriel Conroy's experience, in which the casual airing of a ballad leads to a revelation that causes a man's entire edifice of a life to come crashing down around his ears in a single, shattering night. Huston (and his son Tony, who wrote the screenplay) understood that. Nelson, Holderness, et al., apparently do not.
The story presents us with a way of life — of hospitality, in Gabriel's term — that is vanishing. The musical says the same thing, but what it shows is indistinguishable from the way we live now. The show's creators mistake current social notions of behavior with that of the past: the guests casually indulge in crude blasphemies in the respectable home of two elderly Dublin ladies and stamp about with lower-class bravado more appropriate to a public house than a genteel petit bourgeois Christmas function.
And if you've read "The Dead," try to imagine Aunt Julia and Aunt Kate dancing on the dining table, or thrusting out their bottoms to the double-entendre lyrics of a saucy music hall turn that climaxes with their niece Mary Jane kissing the diffident tenor Bartell D'arcy with passionate abandon. It's beyond outrage; it's obscene.
Nelson even botches the story's pivotal moment, placing it not at the party's end, but near its beginning. There are some exceptionally fine performers assembled here (Quinn Hawkesworth, Debra Gillingham, Jan Daub Morgan, Kendall Rileigh, Deb Royals) but neither they nor the redoubtable David Henderson can triumph over material like that.
Meighan Carpenter's choreography consists largely of Celtic clod-hopping in the approved Michael Flatley fashion, and the lighting designs of Matthew Adelson are curiously antiseptic in their institutional harshness. Carson Mather's costumes for the women are largely apt (aside from dressing Aunt Kate to look like a sack of Irish potatoes), but he comes a cropper with the men's clothing, which include anachronisms such as 1904 dress shirts bearing breast pockets.
James Joyce's "The Dead" is a musical for people who'd rather be watching Riverdance.
Second Opinion: Oct. 9th Raleigh, NC News & Observer review by correspondent Roy C. Dicks: http://www.triangle.com/calendar/theaterreview/story/1715979p-7974455c.html; and Oct. 13th Durham, NC Independent Weekly review by Byron Woods: http://indyweek.com/durham/current/woods.html.
Burning Coal Theatre Company presents James Joyce's "The Dead" Thursday-Saturday, Oct. 14-16 and 21-23, at 7:45 p.m. and Sunday, Oct. 17 and 24, at 2 p.m. in The Kennedy Theatre at the BTI Center for the Performing Arts, 2 E. South St., Raleigh, North Carolina. $15 ($13 students, seniors 65+, and active military-personnel and $10 for groups of 10 or more). 919/834-4001 or http://www.burningcoal.org/tickets%20submit.htm. Burning Coal Theatre Company: http://www.burningcoal.org/. Internet Movie Database (1987 Film): http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0092843/. James Joyce Centre: http://www.jamesjoyce.ie/.