“James Joyce’s The Dead” doesn’t sound like a Christmas play (well, maybe one that Scrooge or The Grinch would like) but as one is wont to do during the holidays, it reflects on family, tradition and years gone by. Also, everyone’s in the singing spirit. The story takes place during a lively, musical party at the home of elderly sisters Kate (Anne Gunn) and Julia (Mary Ernstein) Morkan, and focuses on their insecure nephew Gabriel (Phillip Earl Johnson), in particular his relationship with his wife. Rob Lindley, playing the firecracker drunk Freddy Malins, and Susie McMonagle, playing a tortured Mrs. Conroy, have great stage presence. But as the main character, Johnson gets lost in the crowd. He seems a bit lost in his character as well. Johnson narrates Gabriel’s inner thoughts without enough emotion. His light tone contrasts his weighty words too sharply. It intimates a lack of self-reflection and depth which makes his epiphany at the end almost unbelievable and certainly a tad melodramatic. To work, the closing attempt at pathos needs a bit more precedent. Without such, McMonagle and Johnson’s chilling last scene falls flat.
Richard Nelson’s book blends a bevy of musical genres: Irish folk, opera, barbershop quartet, classic Broadway show-tune. Unfortunately the music hardly showcases the ensemble’s vocal talents, save for Susie McMonagle’s “Golden Hair”, Ernstein and Rachel Klippel’s reprise of “When Lovely Lady” and J. Michael Finley’s “Darcy’s Aria”. And the lyrics don’t help much either. Although they are enjoyable to the ear, they don’t always further the plot or fit the tone.
Despite the talented musicianship and acting, the show never invited me in. Instead of a welcomed dinner guest, I felt more like a Peeping-Tom. Ultimately The Court Theater’s “The Dead” just never comes to life.