"Branches Among the Stars," at Ensemble Studio Theatre, consists of two stories uneasily jammed together. One is a portrait of James Joyce as a son in the period just before and after his mother's death. The other is a portrait of Joyce as a lover, or at least as a seducer, as he woos the woman who would later become his wife, Nora Barnacle.
Playwright T.S. Kerrigan pretends his two tales occurred concurrently. Nora clucks sympathetically over Joyce's reports of his mother's condition, while Joyce writes poems about Nora--and swears that he can think of nothing but her--even as he copes with the familial turmoil surrounding his mother's death.
In fact, Joyce didn't meet Nora until June 10, 1904, 10 months after his mother died. In Kerrigan's version, Joyce and Nora waited for his mother's demise and then left quickly for Paris; actually, they didn't leave until October, 1904. Kerrigan's Joyce has no prospects of employment abroad; the real Joyce was counting on a post with Berlitz.
Kerrigan took a number of other liberties with the historical record, especially regarding the background and behavior of Nora. If his fictions had resulted in a work of art, they might be justified. But "Branches" is disappointingly prosaic. It's as if Kerrigan, leery of Joyce's reputation for inaccessibility, decided to write about Joyce in a style that anyone could understand, if not appreciate.
Joyce utters standard misunderstood-artist dialogue that probably would have embarrassed him no end. Nora asks Joyce if there is anyone he admires. "Only the poet and painter, I'm afraid," he replies. Surely Joyce would have specified \o7 which \f7 poet, \o7 which \f7 painter.
Lee Rose's staging is just as fuzzy. At last Sunday's matinee, too many lines were lost in the distance between the set and the audience. The noise of a fan didn't help, but the actors weren't projecting enough, either.
Matthew Sullivan's Joyce is cool to the point of blandness. Susan Rome's Nora has a hard time making the transition from dedicated Irish patriot to heedless lover, especially as we don't feel the chemistry between her and Joyce.
Joyce's parents (Redmond Gleeson and Robin Nolan) and siblings (Lynn Clark and Tom Sullivan) are more authentically written and feel truer in the playing. A. Clark Duncan's set looks accurate, despite its alienating distance from the audience.
\o7 Performances are at 1089 N. Oxford Ave., Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 3 p.m. Tickets: $12-$15; (213) 466-2916. \f7
'Stepping Into Tomorrow'
The producers of "Stepping Into Tomorrow," a 9-year-old touring production that has rented Theatre 4 at the Los Angeles Theatre Center for its longest run yet in Los Angeles, note in the program that their goal is "to encourage and support positive growth within humanity, especially within our youth."
The result, not surprisingly, is a self-help pep rally. Within the context of a 10-year high school reunion gathering, half a dozen members of the class come forward to testify, in speech and song, about the troubles they've seen and the triumphs they've achieved.
All of the endings are happy. The characters are infinitely supportive of one another. There is no dramatic conflict, just good vibes. Unmotivated teen-agers might respond to this. I wanted more.
For example, were these people ever as close as they claim? None of them know the first thing about what has happened to any of the others since high school, nor is there the slightest suggestion of any romantic feeling between either of the men in the group and any of the women.
Still, the casting of three famous daughters is undeniably a draw. Attallah Shabazz, Sherri Poitier and Gina Belafonte are the offspring of Malcolm X, Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte. Shabazz directed and also founded the company that produces the show, along with Yolanda King, daughter of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Shabazz, Belafonte and Gregory H. Poole insert moments of sly humor into the uplift, and the package is slickly staged. An alternate cast performs on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.
\o7 Performances are at 514 S. Spring St. Tuesdays through Suyndays at 8 p.m., Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m., through May 1. Tickets: $15-$20; (213) 627-5599. \f7
'Blind With No Legs'
Another play about siblings gathering around a parent's deathbed? Puh-leeze.
"Blind With No Legs," unlike "Daddy's Dyin' " and "Best Wishes," has no sense of place--and very little sense of humor. These siblings exist only to hash out their problems with each other.
The three oldest favor their dead mother, whose ghost stalks through the play, over their dying father. The youngest sticks up for the old man. But this schism, which could be the heart of the play, doesn't become apparent until deep in the second act.