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Theatre in Review: Himself and Nora (Minetta Lane Theatre)

Matt Bogart, Whitney Bashor. Photo: Matthew Murphy

A musical about James Joyce and Nora Barnacle? As the great man himself might say, Oh, Jaysus. Not that there isn't rich material in the story of the man who wrote Ulysses and his feisty life partner. You can fairly say it is loaded with drama: A son of the middle class with a university education, Joyce, stifled by priest-ridden Ireland and its lace-curtain pretensions, fled for the Continent, taking with him Nora, a hotel maid from Galway. Running off with a working-class woman -- Joyce tended to see marriage as a Roman Catholic plot against personal freedom -- was perhaps the first major transgression in a life defined by such acts.

That their union was passionate is beyond doubt. That Nora got more than she bargained for is equally true: Uprooted and unwed, she lived a life of perpetual uncertainty in Trieste, Zurich, and Paris, repeatedly forcing herself to adapt to unfamiliar languages and customs. As a provider, Joyce was an unqualified disaster, focused as he was on his writing, most of which was deemed by publishers, critics, and readers as obscene, obscure, or -- a neat trick -- both. Joyce was also permanently haunted by the fact that he wasn't Nora's first lover, and he could make his displeasure known, sharply. (Not that he wasn't a well-known face in Dublin's brothels; he also conducted some extramarital activities of his own.) Later, she had to deal with his declining health, most notably the grueling diseases of the eye that overtook him, often leaving him more or less blind. Surely she was uncomfortable around his tonier friends, including Ezra Pound, Sylvia Beach, and Ernest Hemingway. In any case, she had no interest in his writing, a fact that remained a permanent irritant in their relationship. For these reasons, and with two difficult children to raise, Joyce and Nora were, all too often, trapped in a web of penury, grievance, and jealousy.

All this and the century's most innovative works of literature: It's an embarrassment of dramatic riches, an open invitation to experiment with the musical form. And, surely, a certain richness of language is demanded. Alas, Himself and Nora, a chamber piece with book, music, and lyrics by Jonathan Brielle, flattens these two great characters into one-and-a half dimensions each and denudes their story of its most piquant details. And when all else fails, it piles on the blarney.

In Matt Bogart's performance, at least we get a sense of Joyce's arrogance, obsession with words, and -- most of all -- his lust for Nora. But, as played by the talented but miscast Whitney Bashor, Nora isn't a big broth of a peasant girl, baffled by her husband's ambitions; instead, given a full complement of feisty dialogue seemingly lifted from a John Ford picture starring Maureen O'Hara, she is more like an Irish suffragette: "I want a man to treat me like an equal," she says. "Can you do that, Jimmy Joyce?" We actually see Joyce following Nora around, writing down everything she says, which creates the unfortunate impression that she more or less dictated Ulysses to him. When, years after its initial publication, the United States ban on Ulysses is finally lifted, Joyce shouts to his wife, "I did it. We did it! They didn't break us!" Later, he assures her, "The words are all you, Nora."

Well, no. According to Richard Ellmann's magisterial biography, as late as 1926, Nora asked Joyce, point-blank, "Why don't you write sensible books that people can understand?" Brielle's book -- really a series of song cues -- skips over key parts of the story, possibly in an effort to prevent Joyce from seeming hopelessly vain and passive. Stanislaus, Joyce's supremely put-upon sibling, who kept his brother and Nora afloat financially for years, is reduced to an offstage character, earning only a couple of mentions. Similarly, the nine-year struggle to get Dubliners, Joyce's short-story collection, published, is reduced to a couple of lines. Joyce's two main benefactors, Ezra Pound and Harriet Weaver (publisher of the literary review The Egoist), are bizarrely presented as vaudevillians in a number that aspires to satire without having any point to make. (The characterization of Weaver, a political and aesthetic progressive, as a repressed spinster who gets all steamy under the influence of Joyce's prose, is particularly offensive.) Even weaker is the number "The Children of Mister Joyce," featuring the author's son, Giorgio, and daughter, the schizophrenic Lucia. Her abortive relationship with Samuel Beckett (another unseen character) is raised and dropped so quickly that you might miss it altogether.

In a play about the man who practically invented a new language in the novel Finnegans Wake -- who could never resist a pun and who wrote scathing verses at the drop of a hat -- the book and lyrics are distressingly banal. When Sylvia Beach -- who, just for the heck of it, announces that she is a lesbian ten seconds after meeting Joyce -- offers him a publishing deal that he calls "aggressive," she snaps, "You bet your shamrocks." And then there's this old chestnut: "You know what's wrong with Paris?" "No, what?" "The French." Most of the songs are written in a kind of Irish folk-pop style; few of them have captivating melodies. A ballad titled "Always in Love" has words that are pure old-time operetta: "But what words have I/If I can't have you?/What lips are these if they can't kiss you?/And what can a man be, but wrong/If he does not belong to love?"

One or two numbers make an impact. "River Liffey," a catalog song listing the names of Ireland's counties, has a Joycean touch, and the ballad "What Better Thing" is quietly moving. Under Michael Bush's direction, the cast does its best: Aside from Bogart and Bashor, Lianne Marie Dobbs appears, with variable success, as Joyce's dying mother, the surprisingly lubricious Harriet Weaver, a no-nonsense Sylvia Beach, and the mentally unstable Lucia, while Michael McCormick is effective as Joyce's boozy father and Ezra Pound. Zachary Prince plays a priest who haunts Joyce's consciousness, a representative of the church that he has thrown off but can't quite escape -- a clever idea that isn't well-developed. Prince also turns up as Giorgio, a singer frustrated by his father's disapproval.

The action unfolds on a spare but attractive set by Paul Tate dePoo III, its interesting textures treated with lovely color washes by Jason Lyons, when he isn't creating starkly theatrical white-light looks using a handful of instruments. Amy Clark's costumes deftly cover a time frame of nearly 30 years. Keith Caggiano's sound design is so-so -- Bashor is sometimes hard to hear, although her diction probably contributes to the problem.

But, lacking a strong point of view and/or anything new to say, Brielle has reduced one of literary history's most famous couples to a Maggie and Jiggs pairing, a feuding, fussing, fighting pair of stage Irish figures. Himself would not be pleased. -- David Barbour

(15 June 2016)

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