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Himself And Nora

Matt Bogart                photos by Matthew Murphy


                                   by Eugene Paul


If you’re going to write a play about the arguably most complicated figure in Western literature, James Joyce, you are asking for it.  And just to make things interestinger , tackling Joyce’s language alone has been a migraine ever since the first publication of “Ulysses” in 1922. Then there’s his story telling ability that seems to fall squarely between Scylla and Charybdis in further disputation. There are those who think his last book, “Finnegan’s Wake” is really his masterpiece, while others say it’s incomprehensible. So you might just as well write a musical about his love life with the still not so famous Nora Barnacle, the indomitable Nora, fought out over half Europe when he forsook the censoring Catholic soil of Ireland for friendlier turf.


  And who rushes in where angels fear to tread? Playwright, composer, lyricist Jonathan Brielle, daring it all, book, music, lyrics. And pretty darn well getting away with it, thanks to a small, smashing, versatile company under the deft direction of Michel Bush. In designer Paul Tate dePoo III’s brooding setting we are mourners over the corpse of James Joyce, suddenly, finally dead in Zurich in 1941, Nora (outstanding Whitney Bashor) singing her anger and grief, a silkily supercilious priest (marvelous Zachary  Prince) who has haunted Joyce all his life, hovering, chanting rote Latin comfort in the gaunt chamber.


Whitney Bashor



Suddenly, the corpse becomes blazing, young Joyce ( remarkable Matt Bogart) caught in the days of his early wooing of Nora.  A series of clever songs, one feeding into the next, “Himself and Nora”, “Land of Erin”, “Kiss”, “Companion in Lust” and composer/lyricist/author Brielle has swept us back forty years to a dashing  young Joyce and a knowingly flirtatious young Nora getting in over their heads in love and lust, James determined never to go through the hypocritical farce of marriage, Nora determined one day to be Mrs. James Joyce. It takes twenty-seven years.  And always, Himself comes first, his writing, his pride, the perpetual scrounge for money, his constant battle with the ghost of a Catholic priest always hovering. Which does not lend to constant audience fascination, their story together not as compelling as his story: early success, then rejection after rejection.


 Author Brielle confidently  comes to depend on the strong presences of the stars playing Joyce and Nora.  He comes to depend on the deeply talented Lianne Marie Dobbs playing and singing and dancing six vital characters,  from Joyce’s distraught mother to his beautiful, mad daughter.  Brielle leans on several juicily rounded characters Michael McCormick plays, from James’s Da, to Ezra Pound. One of the stand-out vaudeville songskits is McCormick and Dobbs doing a riff on Joyce’s benefactors, poet Ezra Pound and heiress Harriet Weaver conspiring to get Joyce published. All of which tests the viability of the first act after deciding which is too much in and which is too much left out by the creatives:  Brielle, Brielle and Brielle.


Second act moves more fiercely, Joyce almost unbearably on top of the world in “The Grand Himself” opener with ebullient Ezra Pound, rescuer publisher of “Ulysses” Sylvia Beach and the ever lurking priest. And in his grandeur, Joyce persuaded at last, twenty-seven years later to make Nora Mrs. Joyce, in part to unbastardize his children, Giorgio and Lucia, now both adults. Now, also are the increasing troubles with Joyce’s eyes, the endless operations – there were twenty-three –the endless rewrites, “Finnegan’s Wake” takes seventeen years, the endless drinking, the endless debts. And while one mystery, James  Joyce’s love story with Nora, is unfurled, the greater mystery remains: do we really know James Joyce?


 Or must we? Aren’t he and his friends and his family in his works? Would we warm more quickly to Brielle’s songs if we heard the Joyce in them,  because  we knew the works of James Joyce intimately?  If that were possible? One thing seems certain: the entire company (Matt Bogart, Whitney Bashor, Lianne-Marie Dobbs, Zachary Prince and Michael McCormick) performs with the assurance and panache of knowing they have a hit on their hands. We wish them well.


Himself and Nora at the Minetta Lane Theatre. 18 Minetta Lane.  Tickets:$88. 2 hrs. Thru Sept. 17.