|THE DEAD, 1904|
Are you ready to party like it’s 1904? That’s one question you should ask yourself before purchasing tickets to the Irish Repertory Theatre’s immersive adaptation of James Joyce’s classic novella “The Dead,” now ensconced in a beautiful Fifth Avenue mansion used by the Irish Historical Society. Mind you, no one is asking you to wear a bustle dress or a top hat or dance a quadrille – those tasks are left to the players, whom you watch and subtly intermingle with during the first 90 minutes of this unusual and slightly subdued evening.
Still, this may be a party, but it ain’t no disco! We’re guests at an elegant wintertime dinner thrown by aging sisters Kate Morkan (the wry Patricia Kilgariff) and Julia Morkan (a touching Patti Perkins) and their vibrant young niece Mary Jane (a consistently enchanting Kimberly Doreen Burns). They’re extremely hospitable hostesses, offering us a warming liquor (or cider) upon arrival, some lovely musical selections, and eventually a delicious feast (catered by Great Performances) in which we’re allowed to indulge.
Yet, as is true of a lot of dinner parties, then and now, there’s a splash of drama, some barely-contained tensions, and a fair amount of banality. Favored nephew Gabriel Conroy (Rufus Collins) gets into a political tiff about Ireland with the spirited Molly Ivars (a fine Aedin Moloney); the pompous Mr. Brown (the convincing Peter Cormican) annoys the guests with bad jokes and chatter; the famed tenor Bartell D’Arcy (a superb John Treacy Egan) refuses to sing, claiming “he’s horse as a crow”; and everyone worries about the inebriated Freddy Malins (James Russell). Still and all, it seems like we’ll leave pleasantly full and glad that nothing eventful actually happened.
Whether you’re prepared for something more than that is the second question you should ask! Shortly before the party breaks up, Mr. D’Arcy does break into song – causing a visceral reaction in Gabriel’s seemingly cheerful wife, Gretta (a luminous Melissa Gilbert), signaling some hidden depth inside her lovely exterior.
Finally, as we glimpse in intimate scene in the couple’s upstairs guest bedroom, beautifully staged by director Ciaran O’Reilly, Gretta finally reveals a long-held secret to Gabriel, one that has colored her whole life and their marriage -- and which unleashes a rather morose, philosophical monologue from Gabriel (beautifully performed by Collins) that provokes us to look at our own lives differently.
Indeed, if “The Dead, 1904” accomplishes its goals, we leave the house as different people than when we entered (just as Gretta and Gabriel do), which may be more than some people bargained for.
By Brian Scott Lipton
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New York, NY 10011