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Just a hint of James Joyce during ‘Himself and Nora’

Times Staff Writer

The romance of James Joyce and Nora Barnacle, one of history’s juiciest love affairs as immortalized in Joyce’s “Ulysses,” has survived the most amazing series of obstacles.

The sexually obsessed Irish writer’s dysfunctional life could not destroy it. The probings of hundreds of biographers have yet to spoil it for us. Even the occasional bad Joycean movie, such as the recent “Nora,” comes and goes too quickly to do lasting damage.

So there is little to fear from “Himself and Nora,” a new musical comedy that follows Joyce from birth to death. It too will pass. And who knows? Given the enthusiastic reception the premiere of this earnest, obvious, all-American attempt at Irish bawdiness received at the Old Globe on Thursday night, Joyce might find another reader or two, although I doubt it.

A musical comedy about James and Nora is not farfetched. After all, “Ulysses,” widely hailed as the greatest novel of the 20th century, is so musical that it sings itself off the page, so lewd that it single-handedly sexed 20th century literature, so fleshy that the very reading of it feels like live theater.

Sheila Walsh’s book for “Himself and Nora” hits on many of the salient themes of Joyce’s life. In the opening scene, his birth, we are introduced to the luminously infantile sound, the hallucinatory tumescence of the prose that would change language. Looming right from the start are Joyce’s rebelliously feisty father, world-weary suffering mother and harping priest, all of whom continue to loom throughout the evening, as they did in Joyce’s life.

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But can a muscular, squared-jawed, impossibly handsome, quintessentially Broadway actor, Matt Bogart, nude and curled in a fetal position, really be Joyce?

Joyce, his mother and father sing of the journey ahead: “So stand up and walk tall, James,” his father belts. Broadway cliches pour out, polished, trite, a stream of inconsequential consciousness. Jonathan Brielle’s music kills words.

It’s a bad start, but over the course of two hours a hint -- just a hint, mind you -- of the wonder of Joyce and his lust for life, language and lust does start to come across.

First we must find Joyce through Bogart, whose wavering Irish accent no more disguises his all-purpose Broadway overacting than a Guinness T-shirt might his sculpted torso. It takes awhile, but he does begin to grow into the part, especially in the second act, when he finally acquires a mustache and a hat and begins to look more like Joyce.

Kate Shindle’s Nora is smart, savvy, a character out of a sitcom. She indulges Joyce. When she spars with him, she wins. She serves as an object of desire only condescendingly. She shows no vulnerability. She gets more laughs than he does. But where in this self-possessed actress, once Miss America, is the uneducated chambermaid who became for Joyce the incarnation of carnality?

“Himself and Nora” is a tour through a love affair that begins with a kiss in Dublin, carries on in Trieste, Italy, where Joyce flees to escape the confines of Irish life, then moves to Paris and finally Zurich. Ups and downs were as high and low as they get, but Joyce’s lechery never diminished in their years together, from their meeting in 1904 until his death in 1941.

So much territory is covered in vignettes that song and dance numbers must paint complex pictures -- James and Nora sailing to Europe, Joyce celebrating Ireland in Italy as he teaches English, James and Nora cooing, kissing and breaking up, finding themselves and coming together, coping with poverty. Joyce drinks too much, sees too little thanks to failing eyesight, fights with publishers and patrons.

With all this ardent activity, there is, however, little time for real sensuality, let alone sex. The language can get appropriately dirty, but don’t get your Joycean hopes up. It is delivered as if it were good clean fun, Las Vegas style, rather than smut.

Three hardworking actors, Frank Mastrone, David Edwards and Kathy Santen have between them the various parts of Joyce’s parents, priest, poet Ezra Pound, an eye doctor, patrons Harriet Weaver and Sylvia Beach, as well as James’ and Nora’s children, the alcoholic Giorgio and emotionally troubled Lucia. Most of these are goofy caricatures, slightly done. Ezra Pound’s soft-shoe number is bad enough to be remembered, were it not so self-consciously campy.

Tobin Ost’s set is a curved backdrop, hinting both at Dublin and Trieste, and his costumes flamboyantly relate to the period.

Unusually, “Himself and Nora” has two directors, Joseph Hardy and Jeff Calhoun (best known for “Big River”). That could be a situation ripe for interesting conflict. But from the fluid production, it appears that two traffic cops are better than one.

How one longs for something really Joycean to come in and mess it all up.

*

‘Himself and Nora’

Where: Old Globe Theatre,

Balboa Park, San Diego

When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays,

2 and 7 p.m. Sundays

Ends: April 24

Price: $19 to $55

Contact: (619) 234-5623, www.theoldglobe.org

Running Time: 2 hours, 5 minutes

Matt Bogart...James Joyce

Kate Shindle...Nora Barnacle

David Edwards...Priest/Giorgio Joyce

Frank Mastrone...John Joyce/

Doctor/Ezra Pound

Kathy Santen...Joyce’s Mother/

Harriet Weaver/

Sylvia Beach/Lucia Joyce

Directors, Jeff Calhoun and Joseph Hardy. Scenic and costume design, Tobin Ost. Lighting design, Michael Gilliam. Sound design, Jon Weston. Musical director, Jana Zielonka. Orchestrations, Jonathan Brielle.


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