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Dead on Arrival

James Joyce’s “The Dead” at the Huntington Theatre

By Vladimir Zelevinsky

staff writer

Directed by Richard Nelson

Based on the short story by James Joyce

Book by Richard Nelson

Music by Shaun Davey

Starring Sean Cullen, Kate Kearney-Patch, Alica Cannon, Patricia Kilgarriff, Jennifer Piech, Paddy Croft, Paul A. McGrane, Shay Duffin, Brandy Zarle, Gannon McHale, Jesse Pennington, Laura Woyasz

At Huntington Theatre through Oct.14

There is an awkward contradiction in a lot of musical plays, the one that makes them the last bastion of non-method acting. I am speaking about the moment when the musical number starts, when the actors have to stop listening to the inner lives of their characters and are forced, instead, to listen to the choreographer -- a transition from naturalistic freedom to strict stylization.

A few musicals (The Chorus Line and Cabaret, for example) avoid this problem by making the musical numbers a once-removed part of a theatrical world; some (mostly Sondheim) dispense with pre-set choreography entirely. “James Joyce’s The Dead” avoids this awkward conflict in yet another manner: by making all stage actions -- even the ones where the characters are neither singing nor dancing -- strictly forced upon everybody on the stage, as if every character gesture, every inflection of speech is too important to leave to mere actors. No, “The Dead” clearly belongs to the traffic-cop school of theatre, where the actors are merely pawns, moved around the stage by the director, the writer, and the choreographer.

The awkward conflict between the musical numbers and the rest of the play is, thus, avoided -- and the price is merely that most of “The Dead”’s two hours feels utterly unnatural and fake. Actually, the musical numbers are the ones that are more realistic and give the actors more of a chance to do at least some character work.

Another reason why songs and dances feel more natural is that the play provides quite a solid context for them: it’s a New Year’s celebration (turn of the century -- last one, that is -- in Dublin) at the house of three music teachers. The guests come, listen to music, sing some songs, dance a few jig-like dances, and go home -- and that’s pretty much it, until the last ten minutes. There is a certain grasp of the age, the location, and the atmosphere (all three coming directly from Joyce’s short story) -- and a perfect absence of anything resembling the narrative.

“The Dead” is set at a party, and it does resemble a party, with the most interesting people so busy elsewhere that you can spend only a fleeting moment with them, and with the most obnoxious ones incessantly rambling right into your ear. This certainly applies to Gabriel Conroy (Sean Cullen): I don’t recall a professional theatrical production where the supposedly sympathetic character was quite as irritating.

Robotically moving around the stage, too busy to hit his light marks to do any acting, jumping from one fake emotion to another one, providing utterly unnecessary narration in a perfectly sleep-inducing sing-song drone. That would not be good in any case, but here it is twice as annoying since Gabriel is the lead. Those narrations, by the way, are all delivered while a bluish spotlight shines directly on Gabriel, and after a while I developed a decidedly Pavlovian reflex by starting to groan when that bluish spotlight would fade on.

Every other part is noticeably better, with a couple of them being quite memorable: the drunkard Freddy Malins (Paul A. McGrane) and music student Michael (Jesse Pennington) manage to cut three-dimensional character from the rather meager fabric of the script. There is also a wonderfully touching moment when an old lady tries to sing a song, and her voice fails her. It was touching, and as such it worked for about 20 minutes until the script decided it was a time for comic relief, giving the same old lady a jaunty jingle (“Naughty Girls,” which would be amusing if it weren’t trying so hard to be amusing).

There are also technical problems, none of them major if taken separately, but rather dispiriting together. The combination of the instruments that are played onstage and the music that is piped through the speakers does not sound harmonious.

Every character has a microphone, so all the speech comes out from a single speaker, centered over the stage; a character who is supposed to sound like an operatic tenor sounds like a grotesque parody of one. For all the talking, singing, dancing, and narrating, there still is no story.

Until the last ten minutes, that is. The last scene has a revelation that was obvious for the previous hour, the lead character reacting in an utterly fake way, and an elegiac finale that did not earn any of its sorrow. Ultimately, the most impressive thing about this finale is the amount of stage snow.

So here you go: a lot of hard work clearly went into transporting audience into a bygone era -- but when this was accomplished, everybody involved in “The Dead” seems to have decided that this was enough.