In the half-decade or so since “immersive” became the buzziest word in New York theater, we’ve seen fourth-wall-breaking adaptations of increasingly unlikely texts. Macbeth became Punchdrunk’s orgiastic Sleep No More. Third Rail Projects turned the surreal, unsettling eroticism of Alice in Wonderland into Then She Fell. Right now War and Peace is playing on Broadway, in the form of Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812. Intensely site-specific and interactive to varying degrees, these productions highlight their texts’ most visceral, immediate qualities: sex, death, and longing. Whether in a kiss from Sleep No More‘s witches or tea with Then She Fell‘s Red Queen, the intense, sexualized ambiguity of the immersive mode works best in broad and bloody brushstrokes.
That makes James Joyce’s “The Dead,” a slow-moving meditation on loss, death, and Irish nationalism, quite the unexpected choice for immersive adaptation, and in its new production, The Dead, 1904, the Irish Repertory Theatre gives us a polished and slightly baffling attempt. Like the original story, the production (and here, the audience) follows university professor Gabriel Conroy (Boyd Gaines) through a seemingly uneventful Epiphany celebration at the home of the eccentric Morkan sisters, where a series of conversations and debates crystallizes his awareness of the lack of intimacy in his marriage. It’s a delicate, graceful plot that cries out for no less delicate and graceful a staging, and for the most part, Paul Muldoon and Jean Hanff Korelitz’s elegant script succeeds.
But the immersive elements — including a dinner party with the cast that serves as the show’s de facto centerpiece — are often distracting. While the grandeur of the American Irish Historical Society, a Gilded Age mansion on the Upper East Side, makes for a compellingly atmospheric setting, it’s not necessarily a theatrically effective one. The acoustics, particularly in the drawing room that hosts the play’s first act, are less than ideal. Intimate scenes of intense conversation — like those between Conroy and the suffragette and Irish nationalist Molly Ivors (a powerful Aedin Moloney) — risk getting lost in the chaos of tray-wielding waiters (alcohol is served throughout the production) and audience navigation. Indeed, it’s the more boisterous performances — the smug Mr. Browne (Peter Cormican), the drunkard Freddy Malins (James Russell) — that stand out most, and in doing so risk shifting the tone from philosophical wistfulness to broad comedy.
That’s not to say the setting never works. Gabriel’s melancholy toast at our shared dinner party in the second act, followed by an audience-inclusive rendition of “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow,” fosters a delightful sense of community between audience and actor. But the play’s strongest scene, tellingly, is its most traditional. We are invited to sit and watch the finale, a bleak, dialogue-heavy two-hander between Conroy and his wife. Here, without its experimental trappings, The Dead, 1904 is nothing more, and nothing less, than a wrenching look into what goes unsaid in a marriage. That’s why the story shines, and where the play shines, too.
The Dead, 1904
Directed by Ciarán O’Reilly
At the American Irish Historical Society
991 Fifth Avenue
Through January 7