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The Dead, 1904
Photograph: Carol Rosegg

Theater review: The Dead, 1904 invites audiences to a Joycean party

Adam Feldman

"Snow was general all over Ireland," writes James Joyce in "The Dead," the final short story in Dubliners. Exposition is general all over The Dead, 1904. Adapted from Joyce's story, most of the piece takes place at a Feast of the Epiphany celebration hosted by three spinsters: the elderly Morkan sisters (Patricia Kilgarriff and Patti Perkins) and their music-teacher niece (Barrie Kreinik). In the Irish Repertory Theatre's immersive production, staged by Ciarán O’Reilly at the Upper East Side's stately American Irish Historical Society, the spectators are treated as party guests. Music is played and the actors move amid the audience; drinks and a full dinner—beef, ham, turkey, mashed potatoes, green beans, celery—are served; dialogue and background information from Joyce’s tale are dutifully presented. Unlike John Huston’s ravishing 1987 film version, however, neither the writing nor the ensemble acting does much to fill in the spaces of Joyce’s spare descriptions. Nor does Paul Muldoon and Jean Hanff Korelitz's script find a satisfying way to convey (or compensate for) Joyce’s focus on the thoughts of one party guest: the Morkan sisters’ nephew, the self-conscious academic Gabriel Conroy (Boyd Gaines).

It is likely that you will never see this production, because it is very intimate (40 people in the audience, 12 in the cast), very expensive ($300 for regular tickets, $1,000 if you sit at the main table) and very nearly sold out. So here's what you are missing: It is good fun for a while to stand near actors in Edwardian costumes and admire the space, and there are moments that stand out in the right way, such as the mid-dance debate between Gabriel and Irish nationalist Molly Ivors (Aedin Moloney) or the rigorous violin solo performed by one Miss Daly (Heather Martin Bixler). But more often, the dialogue seems forced; the audience is not integrated into the action, but merely watches it at uncomfortably close range, which ends up making it seem stagier. Why is there so much space around the characters? Why do they talk so loudly? And when the adaptation diverges from the source, it is often on the nose. (An interpolated art song—based on Thomas Moore’s “Oh! Ye Dead,” which may have inspired Joyce's title—is literally about dead Irish people.)

Ironically, in view of its interactive approach, The Dead, 1904 fares best at its conclusion, when it abandons the conceit of our presence at the party and returns us to being parties to a scene at which we’re absent. In a small bedroom, later in the night, Gabriel talks to his wife, Gretta (a gracefully emotional Kate Burton); she reveals a tragic story from her youth, which triggers in him a melancholy epiphany that he shares with us in a monologue taken almost verbatim from Joyce. In this openly theatrical and literary scene, the story comes briefly to life.  

American Irish Historical Society (Off Broadway). By Paul Muldoon and Jean Hanff Korelitz. Directed by Ciarán O’Reilly. With Boyd Gaines, Kate Burton. Running time: 1hr 45mins. No intermission. Click here for full ticket and venue information.

Follow Adam Feldman on Twitter: @FeldmanAdam   

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