By Joseph Hurley
BLOOMSDAY ON BROADWAY XXI, at Symphony Space. June 16.
Not a single cell phone rang in the cavernous Symphony Space auditorium from 7 p.m. last Sunday, when the opening words of “Bloomsday on Broadway XXI” were heard, until 1:50 a.m., when the great Fionnula Flanagan, reading Molly Bloom’s immortal soliloquy, uttered her final “Yes” before a hushed audience.
The absence of cellular interruptions may suggest some measure of the dedication and devotion with which the eager and massive audience comes to the former movie palace at Broadway and 95th Street, recently refurbished with elegance and grace, to hear an equally ardent cluster of New York actors read a lengthy arrangement of material from James Joyce’s “Ulysses.”
June 16 is, of course, “Bloomsday” to Joyceans around the world, and to fans of literature in general, since that date, in the year 1904, is the one on which the entirety of “Ulysses” takes place, as Joyce charts the course of his beleaguered hero, Leopold Bloom, through a long and arduous Dublin day.
It was also the day on which James Joyce first “walked out” with Nora Barnacle, the woman he was eventually to marry. He apparently selected the date in commemoration of their relationship.
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Each year’s running of “Bloomsday on Broadway” centers on a single theme, sometimes more successfully than at others. This year, fate and the calendar played into the hands of the evening’s producers, since Father’s Day happened to fall conveniently on June 16.
So “Bloomsday on Broadway XXI” focused on relationships involving fathers and sons, sons and fathers, surrogate and actual, and even on fathers and daughters, although even individuals reasonably familiar with “Ulysses” might be forgiven for forgetting that, in addition to the son who died after just 11 days of life, Leopold Bloom and his wife, Molly, had a daughter, Millicent, more familiarly known as Milly, who would have been about 13 in 1904.
Since “Ulysses” is nothing if not a story of paternity in all its subtleties, the Father’s Day concept worked well at Symphony Space. If anything could have been jettisoned in the interests of the overall theme, it might have been aspects of the novel’s rich plotline, which emerged this time in a slightly wobbly manner here and there.
“Bloomsday on Broadway XXI” was a very businesslike affair, with none of the onstage musical interludes, by harpists, singers and the lot, that have tended to clog the works a bit in past years. Those musical performances, on the other hand, provided ideal bathroom breaks, moments that were virtually nonexistent this time, particularly for individuals reluctant to miss even a word of the text as it was delivered from the stage.
Moments of the lengthy stage rendering ranged, as had to have been the case, with everything factored into the overall equation, from the exquisite to the execrable, since some of the most admired members of the New York theatrical community read cheek by jowl with rank amateurs.
That, in a way, was as it should have been, since Joyce, Bloomsday and even “Bloomsday on Broadway” are for everyone, the sole qualification for inclusion being a passionate and genuine interest in the world of “Ulysses.”
Many of the finest participants from Bloomsdays past were on hand to participate in “Bloomsday on Broadway XXI,” among them David Margulies, an actor seemingly born to play Leopold Bloom, Robert MacNeil, Larry Keith, Bernadette Quigley, Ciaran O’Reilly, Frederick Rolf, Frank McCourt and his brother Alfie, Terry Donnelly, Cynthia Harris, Philip Bosco, Rochelle Oliver, Barbara Feldon, Kathleen Chalfant, Neil Hickey, Aideen O’Kelly, Lois Nettleton, Charlotte Moore, Jo McNamara, Jack Davidson, Fidelma Murphy, Harris Yulin, KT Sullivan, Gretchen Walther, not to slight Sheffer, the event’s founder, and Larry Josephson, who produced the radio aspect of this particular occasion, which was carried, start to finish, over WBAI-FM.
Apart from the redoubtable Fionnula Flanagan, when the time finally arrived for Molly Bloom’s monologue, probably the warmest and most enthusiastic reception accorded any performer occurred when Isaiah Sheffer, in introducing Fritz Weaver, told the audience that the gaunt, Lincolnesque actor had been the first reader in the first “Bloomsday on Broadway,” as he put it, “early on a very cold morning 20 years ago today.”
The house exploded in applause for Weaver, both before and after his excellent rendering of an evocative section of the “Wandering Rocks” section of “Ulysses.”
The book was richly and widely represented by passages drawn from Joycean sections ranging from “Telemachus” to “Proteus,” from “Calypso” to “Lestrygonians,” and from “Sirens” and “Cyclops” to “Oxen of the Sun” and “Circe.”
Certain “Bloomsday on Broadway” regulars were absent, conspicuous among them Frances Sternhagen, Pauline Flanagan and Lois Smith, all of whom were committed elsewhere.
As always, the audience was very much the thing at this year’s “Bloomsday on Broadway.” They arrived early, with that huge crowd filling the house, side balconies included, before the first readings actually got underway.
Happily, the audience seemed more than normally hypnotized by the material and its delivery. There appeared to be vastly less traffic up and down the aisles than usual, and it was quite clear that there were remarkably fewer capricious departures.
To put it simply, James Joyce grabbed his audience in the literary equivalent of a hammerlock and, once held, never loosened his grip.
There is, of course, a built-in caveat associated with any edition of “Bloomsday on Broadway” from the outset. Molly Bloom’s soliloquy, unless the event is kicked off at lunchtime, arrives perforce around the time much of the audience would normally be going to bed.
It is, nevertheless, one of the unavoidable highlights of the program, and when it is delivered as magisterially as it is when the Molly is the wondrous Fionnula Flanagan, it’s well worth the wait.
The program announced the arrival onstage of Leopold Bloom’s restless wife with the words “10:00 PM to 12:45 AM: Molly Bloom Has the Last Word,” but, in fact, the glittering Flanagan didn’t take the stage until 11, which meant that what remained of her audience, once the last words of the book’s “Penelope” section had been spoken, stumbled out onto Broadway at about 1:50 a.m.
The actress, resplendent in a gleaming white silk pantsuit, her white-blonde hair catching the lights above the Symphony Space stage, reclined on a comfortable chair, her feet elevated, and gave Molly the richness and fullness of her long professional experience. As she finished each page of the soliloquy, she let it flutter to the stage floor, like a leaf from some magical, golden tree.
Flanagan’s Molly, witty, lacerating and full of feeling, was something to conjure with, a genuine highlight of “Bloomsday on Broadway XXI.”