The Irish Repertory Theatre is back in a big way this season: Two shows are currently playing their newly renovated Chelsea theater (the world premiere of The Pigeon in the Taj Mahal and an ever-extending revival of Finian's Rainbow). They've now added a third production with their interactive presentation of James Joyce's masterful short story, The Dead, at the American Irish Historical Society. Playwrights Paul Muldoon and Jean Hanff Korelitz offer a faithful and period-appropriate adaptation while emphasizing the timeless aspects of this story about a group of Dubliners at a party for the Feast of the Epiphany. Throughout the evening, bad puns and barely suppressed tensions amass like mashed potato mountains. Visitors may feel a twinge of nostalgia (or dread) for their own family Christmases during this ambitious but uneven immersive experience.
In the grandest of Irish traditions, we're offered a drink as soon as we ascend the stairs. Lily the maid (an amiable Clare O'Malley) introduces us to a parlor bustling with activity. Guests dance and chat as we imbibe whiskey and sherry. The hosts for the evening are Kate and Julia Morkan (Patricia Kilgarriff and Patti Perkins, who treat us all as dear old friends). Everyone awaits the late arrival of their favorite nephew, the professor Gabriel (Boyd Gaines), and his wife, Gretta (Kate Burton).
As this is a musical family, the entertainment consists of a technically complicated but melodically challenged violin recital from Mrs. Daly (impressive fingerboard work from Heather Martin Bixler) and a vocal performance by Kate and Julia's niece, Mary Jane (the sweet-voiced Berrie Kreinik). We're told that if we're lucky, we may even hear from retired tenor, Bartell D'Arcy (genuine Irish tenor Karl Scully). None of it compares to the delicious distraction of voyeurism: Through a series of choreographed moments (some more subtle than others), director Ciarán O'Reilly gives us the feeling of being invited to a family dinner during which a few skeletons escape the closet.
One of those is the lithe Freddy Malins (a hilariously wobbly James Russell), who arrives at the party plastered and stays that way. Also, what Christmas dinner would be complete without a little politics? Molly Ivors (the aggressively confident Aedin Moloney) wears her views on her lapel in the form of a Celtic brooch celebrating Irish nationalism (thorough period costume design by Leon Dobkowski). She wants to make Éire great again and doesn't much care for Gabriel and his English-assimilating, Europe-loving ways. "West Briton," she hisses at him as they pass each other in a quadrille, employing a pejorative for Irish who are not sufficiently patriotic.
O'Reilly stages these key moments with a heavy hand, stopping all other action to make sure that we are paying attention. While it doesn't feel as effortless as other immersive attractions (like the indelible Sleep No More), it gets the job done, allowing the other actors in the room to provide shading from offside, like when Mary Jane smiles broadly once D'Arcy finally sings…and goes up on his last note.
Unfortunately, the Millionaire's Row opulence of the American Irish Historical Society's Beaux Arts headquarters doesn't exactly evoke the "dark, gaunt house on Usher's Island" of Joyce's novella. With fine attention to detail, properties designer Deirdre Brennan does her best to offset this, serving us from mismatched glassware to give the impression of an annual get-together of friends and family that has sprawled to include multiple generations. The small dining room is so overstuffed that we can barely move from our seats.
Not that we would need to: Top-notch catering company Great Performances ensures that we are always taken care of. They also prove to be excellent gustation designers, preparing a menu that perfectly captures a holiday dinner that, as described by Joyce, is heavy on the sweet, light on the savory.
After drinking our port, we follow Gabriel and Gretta upstairs to their bedroom for a finale of middle-class, middle-aged comfort steeped in spiritual regret. Burton's furtive Gretta seems sated and tipsy, but still unsatisfied. As portrayed by Gaines, Gabriel is a rumpled man in a crisp suit. His last monologue is densely literary in a manner that would feel inappropriate onstage, were it not being delivered by an inebriated man of letters. A slight palsy in his right hand heralding his own inevitable demise, Gaines acutely captures that terrifying moment in the wee small hours when we directly confront mortality. Under Michael Gottlieb's midnight lighting, which even employs the happy accident of a Central Park lamp framed by the bedroom window, the moment is unbearably tragic.
The Dead, 1904 is full of finely crafted moments, as well as many more that have a blunter quality. It's not a perfect immersive production, but one has to admire Irish Rep for taking the risk. We hope they continue to do so.