Back in 1958, Zero Mostel’s career as a stage actor to contend with took a major step forward when he played the Dublin Jew, Leopold Bloom, in the long run, Off-Broadway production of ULYSSES IN NIGHTTOWN (unsuccessfully revived on Broadway in 1974). This was Marjorie Barkentin’s adaptation of the Walpurgisnicht section of James Joyce’s controversial modern classic, ULYSSES. Now, in the intimate downstairs venue at the Irish Repertory Theatre, Patrick Fitzgerald, a trim actor who could not be more unlike the hulking Mostel physically, vocally, or ethnicity-wise, has undertaken the role, while also writing the script, which he adapted from another part of the novel into a generally viable, if not altogether successful, stage play. Joyce’s densely written novel, famous for its stream of consciousness style and many provocative religious and sexual references (which led to its being banned as late as the early 1960s) is difficult enough to read; turning it into a play, where the audience must grasp everything as soon as it’s said, is an awesome task. This is compounded by the likelihood that most theatregoers probably never read the original or, if they have, probably don't remember it. A further obstacle is created by adapting the material for only two actors, one of whom (Fitzgerald) plays Leopold and three lesser roles, and the other (Cara Seymour) eleven roles, including the magnificent one of Molly Bloom.
Outside the Irish Repertory Theatre,
Fitzgerald must be given kudos for making the slightly less than two-hour production (with a brief, five-minute intermission) hold the audience’s attention, despite the often hard-to-follow, episodic structure, which focuses only on the book’s second half; what transpires happens in a single day (June 16, 1904) in the life of Leopold and Molly, his Gibraltar-born wife, who has not had sex with her spouse for ten years, since the death of their infant son. The day, is broken up into eight episodes, but omits a number of major characters; it follows the Blooms, even when they are visibly taking care of nature’s call, and concludes with the unfaithful Molly giving her famously earthy, stream-of-consciousness soliloquy (composed in eight enormously long sentences) as she ruminates in bed about, among many other things, when she first fell in love with Leopold and agreed to have sex with him, thereby concluding the play (and the novel) with “yes I said yes I will Yes.”
Sarah Bacon, who designed both the set and costumes, provides for the former a workable space defined by a black upstage wall consisting of scrim within a framework that allows for the opening of a door and window; as day turns to night, the wall behind the scrim lights up with stars. A bed at one side (the head of the big guy in front of me made seeing the action here difficult) and a kitchen at the other, with an outhouse toilet in the middle provide functional units within the space. And the minimal costumes (too few to distinguish all of Ms. Seymour’s roles from one another) capture the period well
Ultimately, this is a performance piece with tour-de-force roles for two actors. Having been unimpressed by Mr. Fitzgerald’s rather dull work in last season’s KATIE ROCHE at the Mint, I was pleasantly surprised by the vocal and physical variety, as well as the expressive interpretation, he gives to Joyce’s lines; still, he doesn’t convince me he is Joyce’s paunchy Jew. More effective is Ms. Seymour, even though she isn’t able to sharply differentiate all her characterizations from one another. I thought her very fine delivery of the lengthy soliloquy was just shy of truly outstanding because it needed a few more fireworks to vary its mood.
In spite of Terry Kinney’s intelligent direction and the often difficult but nonetheless poetically fascinating, and frequently funny, passages in the word-play filled narrative and dialogue sections, little that is straightforwardly dramatic happens in GIBRALTAR. All is storytelling (Fitzgerald created two roles for this function, Narrator, played by himself, and Muse, played by Ms. Seymour), conversation, and reminiscence, and without more knowledge of the book some of this can be muddy going. Were the show not closing on Sunday, June 30, I’d advise that some theatergoers would find GIBRALTAR mildly satisfying as a primer on part of a famous novel; that others would disregard the lack of a strong dramatic conflict and just revel in Joyce’s brilliant language well performed; and that others, like me, would consider it highly respectable but not fully satisfying as theatre.
A final note: as I left the subway station at 23rd and 6th, the first person I saw on my way to GIBRALTAR was this man, walking down 6th Ave. Of course, he had nothing to do with the show, but the coincidence was too good to pass by without taking a picture. I thought it might have some spiritual connection to the show, though, perhaps meaning that I should be ready for a perfect, leak free (waterproof) experience. However, when I got to the box office, they didn't have my tickets because I'd made a scheduling error. They squeezed me in, though, but I entered the general admission seating too late, and was forced to sit in the last row where I saw more of the white hair in front of me than I did of the show. The experience was not quite as waterproof as I had hoped for.