'The Dead, 1904': Theater Review
Kate Burton stars opposite four-time Tony Award-winner Boyd Gaines in this immersive theatrical production based on James Joyce's classic novella.
There may be no more exclusive, if heartrending, holiday party in town than the one being held seven times a week in the gorgeous, Victorian-era American Irish Historical Society on Fifth Avenue. There, theatergoers can enjoy a sumptuous dinner of roasted turkey breast, smoked ham, beef tenderloin, mashed potatoes, green beans and bread pudding, accompanied by freely flowing wine. But all that is merely a side benefit to a skillfully staged, immersive adaptation of James Joyce’s classic novella The Dead, here given the more time-specific title The Dead, 1904, starring four-time Tony Award winner Boyd Gaines and stage veteran Kate Burton (Scandal, Grey’s Anatomy).
While such lavish productions as Sleep No More and Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 have made immersive theater all the rage these days, this Irish Repertory Theatre production is a more intimate, emotionally involving experience. With an audience of a mere 40 or so people, the show is transporting, thanks in large part to its elegant setting. When at one point we hear the sound of hooves outside, it’s easy to believe a horse-drawn carriage has really pulled up.
The story — previously adapted into a classic 1987 film directed by John Huston and a 1999 Broadway musical starring Christopher Walken — is fairly simple. It takes place at a holiday party in 1904 Dublin at the home of two elderly sisters (Patricia Kilgarrif, Patti Perkins) and their niece (Barrie Kreinik). Among the guests is the women’s nephew, Gabriel Conroy (Gaines), and his wife Gretta (Burton).
The party includes courtly dancing, musical performances, the aforementioned meal and conversation, much of it light-hearted, some occasionally heated. Late in the evening, as one of the guests sings a traditional Irish song, Gretta turns pensive. When she and her husband retire to an upstairs bedroom, audience in tow, he inquires as to the reason for her sadness. Her response, involving a tragic incident from her past, proves deeply troubling to Gabriel, who ponders it while gazing at the snow falling gently outside the window.
It’s a subtle but haunting tale, and the immersive adaptation by Paul Muldoon and Jean Hanff Korelitz draws us into it skillfully. We have to jostle for optimum position in the small rooms and risk losing some intimate moments. But the dinner scene, in which we dine with the characters, is beautifully handled, and when we sit in the Conroys’ bedroom during their emotional exchange, the effect is nearly voyeuristic.
Clad in period-perfect costumes designed by Leon Dobkowski, the performers handle the challenging task of acting (and occasionally gently interacting) with audience members who are sometimes mere inches away. Gaines and Burton are deeply moving in the central roles, and among the supporting players, James Russell stands out as the drunken but good-hearted wastrel, Freddy.
You will, of course, pay dearly for the privilege of attending the show, which in any case is practically sold-out for the remainder of its limited run. Regular-priced tickets are $300, and if you want to sit in the central table with the main characters at dinner you’ll have to shell out no less than $1,000. If you’re feeling lucky you can try playing the digital lottery, for which tickets are, you guessed it, $19.04.
Venue: American Irish Historical Society, New York
Cast: Heather Martin Bixler, Kate Burton, Peter Cormican, Terry Donnelly, Boyd Gaines, Patricia Kilgarriff, Barrie Kreinik, Aedin Moloney, Clare O’Mally, Patti Perkins, James Russell, Karl Scully
Adaptation: Paul Muldoon, Jean Hanff Korelitz
Director: Ciaran O’Reilly
Costume designer: Leon Dobkowski
Lighting designer: Michael Gottlieb
Sound designer: M. Florian Staab
Properties & interior design: Deirdre Brennan
Choreographer: Barry McNabb
Produced by Irish Repertory Theatre
Presented by Dot Dot Productions, in association with American Irish Historical Society