Singing, Dancing Dubliners: A Lovely, Moody The Dead

What a lovely, mad idea to turn James Joyce’s “The Dead” into a musical! The story itself, a masterpiece of decorous gentility and loss, is famously the last short story in Joyce’s Dubliners , and its elegaic, introspective tone would seem a million miles away from the glitz and dross of Broadway.

That the unusual production at Playwrights Horizons-with its star cast that includes Christopher Walken, Blair Brown, Sally Ann Howes and Stephen Spinella-is now headed to Broadway is all to the astonishing good. Put it this way: It sure ain’t Saturday Night Fever . In its quiet good humor, its melancholy shadows and shifting moods, the production is the first Chekovian musical I’ve seen.

Richard Nelson, the adaptor and the co-lyricist with the composer, Shaun Davey, has never been afraid of the dramatically unspoken. His last play, Goodnight Children Everywere , wasn’t too well received, but I was struck by it partly because of its unforced naturalism, a Chekovian pace and reticence. Mr. Nelson isn’t too nutty, then, in resurrecting “The Dead,” for the essence

of Joyce’s story is found in its buried “unimaginable depth.”

“The world, I’ve come to think, is like the surface of a frozen lake,” Gabriel Conroy (Mr. Walken) tells us, and the line is far more chilling than he charmingly makes it seem. “We walk along, we slip, we try to keep our balance and not to fall. One day there’s a crack, and so we learn that underneath us-is an unimaginable depth.”

Then again, Joyce’s original story is full of music-the traditional songs, the animated discussions about composers and opera singers. The hostesses of the annual Christmas feast in the dark gaunt house are all music teachers-the elderly Julia (Ms. Howes), her sister Kate (Marni Nixon) and their only niece Mary Jane (Emily Skinner)-and some of the guests are their pupils. So the original story itself is an elegy that’s a celebration of music in its generous Irish hospitality, like a merry old wake.

But it’s a wake for the living as well as the dead. Who-or what-is Joyce mourning, apart from Ireland, of course? “The Dead” itself is a strange, mordant title. (He didn’t call the story “The Living.”) In his dark poetry, Joyce is close to T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland : “He who was living is now dead/ We who were living are now dying.” There is death in all loss, too, in a yearning for lost youth, a lost love, a memory “like distant music.”

And words lose their meaning, or certain emotions are unattainable. “Where are the words that can express one’s heart?” Gabriel Conroy pleads. “I haven’t heard them.”

Even music and poetry can go unheard in the face of miseries. There’re enough boisterous-and unmiked-songs in the production to wake the dead. (And gladden the heart.) “You don’t shush the singer,” goes the protesting lyric. “You let the singer sing!”

True! The all-out song, appropriately titled “Wake the Dead,” is led by Mr. Spinella as the desperate, lovable drunk, Freddy Malins, and it’s good to see this fine actor in top form again after a fallow period of late. Not all the numbers are meant to raise the roof, but two others do: “Naughty Girls,” saucily performed by the two elderly aunts and their niece as a party piece that catches fire with the entire ensemble; and “Parnell’s Plight,” hammering its patriot’s message home into the tin ears of the disapproving neighbor below.

But the tone of the Christmastime ritual is otherwise decorously restrained and the dramas “small” until the ultimate tragic disclosure of lost love. The news of Aunt Julia’s dismissal from the church choir, Molly Ivors’ flirtatious moments with flustered Gabriel are performed in understated minor key, almost privately. The intimate mood piece works well in surprising ways, as if we were watching the gathering of these old friends through the parlor window. The excellent cast doesn’t play outwardly to us-reversing the rules of the American musical that thrives on big, extroverted emotion. Oddly, where the piece begins to lose its sure footing is when “bigness” is required.

The central drama when Gabriel realizes that his wife, Gretta, loved a boy in her youth who died for love of her, proves anticlimactic. Joyce’s story hinges on it, transforming its tenuous gentility into an emotional blizzard.

The fresh, young appearance of a student musician reminds Gretta of her long-dead first love. When she confides her past to Gabriel, their long, lovingly dull marriage is left in precarious balance, to live or die. Joyce wrote of Gabriel: “Instinctively he turned his back more to the light lest she might see the shame that burned upon his forehead.” He knows that he has never loved like the boy who once loved his wife. Gabriel was never capable in his emotional deadness of dying for love.

The fault isn’t with Ms. Brown’s Gretta or Mr. Walken’s Gabriel. They play beautifully together, a match of Ms. Brown’s refined warmth and sensuality and Mr. Walken’s wry detachment and unexpected, easy charm. Joyce’s Gabriel Conroy has more pompous heft (and cold, secret snobbery), but even Mr. Walken’s thin singing voice plays to advantage. He can’t sing, but he knows how to. And we lean into him protectively-a shy, neat trick of his, perhaps, but a magnetic one.

No, the key emotional climax is spoilt first by our being tipped off about it much earlier. (Joyce knew better.) But more crucially, in a very uncharacteristic lapse by the dramatist, Mr. Nelson, the invented bedroom scene toward the close between the dying Aunt Julia and her childhood self is a descent into cliché and show-biz sentimentality that in loving memory of Joyce’s “The Dead” ought to be killed off immediately.

The piece, after all, is proudly billed as James Joyce’s The Dead , and though strict fidelity to sacred texts is a bore, nothing would be lost by cutting the un-Joycean sugar high. Mr. Nelson also became the belated co-director of the production with Jack Hofsiss, signaling trouble at the mill. Perhaps there wasn’t time to find the spellbinding theatrical equivalent in song and image to Joyce’s final pages, which close the show. Perhaps there’s still time.

To re-create, in other words, a poetic miracle with Joyce’s unforgettably haunting picture of lost souls, and flickering identity “fading into a grey impalpable world: the solid world itself which these dead had one time reared and lived in was dissolving and dwindling.”

And, above all, to really capture the image of snow falling faintly everywhere, enveloping Gabriel’s Dublin like a shroud. “It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones,” Joyce wrote, “on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”

You see the tremendous challenge that Mr. Nelson and company gave themselves? They have more than met it halfway. They have already created a minor miracle. I guess I’m asking for a major one. Good luck to them, anyway.