A Portrait of the Artist

Reading from their letters, Joyce, Beach, and their printer (Mallon) wrangle over the author's endless corrections and quicken the play's pulse with a fascinating portrayal of a defining moment in modern literature. Keeping up the excitement, U.S. District Court Judge John M. Woolsey (Felix) reads from his decision, saying that "whilst in many places the effect of Ulysses is undoubtedly somewhat emetic, nowhere does it tend to be an aphrodisiac."

Overall, however, Himself! says very little about a man who so passionately wanted to be heard. It's unlikely to please either Joyce fans or neophytes. But it won't be for lack of talent. Exuding kilowatts of stage presence, Cariou dominates the stage, and it is easy to imagine him throwing a shadow over the landscape of modern literature. Whether flashing a leprechaun's grin or getting his Irish up over censorship, the Tony Award winner (for Sweeney Todd) infuses each snapshot of Joyce with emotion.

The script, however, offers him no opportunity to bridge the outbursts with a multilevel portrayal. One telling detail is Cariou's attempts to hint that Joyce had glaucoma. In fact he suffered through numerous eye operations and long periods of near-blindness. But the eye patch Joyce wore during his later years is not seen here, suggesting that facts about his health are considered dispensible by the show's creators.

Likewise the rest of the cast is caught between realism and caricature. Dropping his trousers to enjoy a good "shite" in front of the priest, Felix lustily plays Joyce's father as a stereotypical Irish boozer. Working with a script that favors fervor over fact, he can't do much to show the other side of the older Joyce: a college-educated civil servant who wrote letters connecting his wayward son to his homeland. Similarly Knapp literally has to lift her skirts in an exaggerated portrayal of a prostitute before she is handed the touching role of the self-sacrificing Nora, who pulls a thread from her own clothes to sew on a button for her husband.

On the other hand, Mallon's roles as the priest and a publisher who rejects Ulysses are so one-dimensional he is able to grab hold and play them with total conviction. The result: You almost root for Joyce's adversaries.

What's missing from Himself! is a full portrait of Joyce. Developed in a couple of staged readings in New York, the play was created by book writer Sheila Walsh and composer Jonathan Brielle, both of whom are also credited as co-lyricists. There really are no songs or lyrics to speak of, however. The show's only musical number is a rousing listing of county names in Ireland, which could have been written by George M. Cohan for all it says about Joyce.

Caught up in Joyce's experimentation with language and style, director George Rondo stages each moment as its own event, leaving the audience to play a game of connect-the-dots to understand how Joyce's conflicted feelings about Ireland, religion, and his family affected his life and his work. Thankfully, Thomas Salzman's lighting serves as a welcome Cliffs Notes version of events, seamlessly merging vignettes and spotlighting designer Tim Bennett's glorious Dubliner silhouettes in a way that informs us of what is important even when the direction and writing can't.

In the play Joyce argues with his printer over the final word in Ulysses. He insists the book must end with the most positive word in the human language: yes. Following his lead, I'll sum up with my opinion on whether or not this play has a future: no.

Book by Sheila Walsh, lyrics by Sheila Walsh and Jonathan Brielle, music by Jonathan Brielle. Directed by George Rondo. Starring Len Cariou, John Felix, Jacqueline Knapp, and Brian Mallon. Through February 15. Caldwell Theatre Company, 7873 N. Federal Hwy., Boca Raton, toll-free 930-6400.

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