Dinner theater with old-world charm: This immersive production of The Dead, 1904. presented by Irish Rep, offers not only fascinating drama but also a meal with plenty of pre-dinner whiskey and after-dinner port (not to mention the celery stalks and Smyrna figs, two of many vivid details James Joyce included to create the naturalistic texture of his story).
Based on Joyce’s magnificent novella,The Dead, last of the 10 stories in the collection called Dubliners, Paul Muldoon and Jean Hanff Korelitz’s adaptation for the stage makes clever decisions about what to leave in and what to leave out. If it is imperfect — almost inevitable when wrenching a great work of art out of its genre-specific home — it is, nevertheless, vivid and feels authentic under Ciaran O’Reilly’s fluid direction.
This authenticity is largely due to the lovely venue: The American Irish Heritage Society, located on Fifth Avenue’s Museum Mile, right across the street from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, was built in 1901 as a private, five-story townhouse, and the production uses the elegant stairways and the upstairs and downstairs rooms to excellent effect.
“There is no Irish in his voice at all,” my friend from Dublin murmured. She was referring to Gabriel Conroy (Rufus Collins). Is this lack of an accent a clue to Gabriel’s wannabe English aspirations or a clue to Collins’ disappointing performance in this central role? The Dead is the story of the collision between a man’s inner and outer lives, his private insecurities, and his public pomposities; the power of the fiction lies in the inner voice, which, when externalized for the stage, falls flat or dips into melodrama.
Most of the evening is spent — for the characters and for us, as we join them for music and singing and then at table for dinner — socially. The aging aunts, Kate (Patricia Kilgarriff) and Julia (Patti Perkins), exchange exasperated glances with us about the always-tipsy Freddy (Ciaran Byrne) and the always-present Mr. Brown (Peter Cormican). Their niece, sweet and patient Mary Jane (Kimberly Doreen Burns), gives us a song, while Miss Daly (Heather Martin Bixler) plays both piano and violin.
Two minor characters — Lily (Meg Hennessy), the dimpled housemaid who is rushed off her feet; and Molly Ivors (Aedin Moloney), the Irish nationalist who chastises Gabriel for his European inclinations — are the standouts in the cast. Their accents are thick, and their confrontations with Gabriel are the only moments of dramatized conflict in the play.
We all follow the Conroys upstairs after the dinner party. Gretta (Melissa Gilbert) is preoccupied by a song she’s just heard, while Gabriel has lust on his mind. Joyce’s plot builds, quietly and subtly, to a revelation late at night, when Gretta tells him about a boy who died for love of her when she was a girl long ago. In this adaptation much of the subtlety and irony is lost when Gabriel speaks aloud his sad musings on his life and the prospect of his death, but there is much loveliness in this production to compensate.
The snowflakes falling outside the upstairs window is a perfect concluding touch.