The American Irish Historical Society sits on a tony stretch of Fifth Avenue known as Museum Mile, directly across the street from the Met. For the past three winters, Irish Repertory Theatre has transformed the stately townhouse into the Dublin home of Kate and Julia Morkan, the aging spinsters whose annual party for the Feast of the Epiphany forms the center of James Joyce’s celebrated novella “The Dead.” The Dead, 1904, adapted by Paul Muldoon and Jean Hanff Korelitz and staged by Irish Rep co-founder Ciarán O’Reilly, approximates the experience of attending the Morkans’ jovial supper, allowing the audience to step a century back in time.
Upon arrival, housemaid Lily (Meg Hennessy, who does a mean Irish jig) leads guests up to the second-floor parlor, where cast members favor the crowd with pre-show song and dance. Butlers offer trays of Irish whisky or dry sherry, with punch and stout served in a festive anteroom. (Deirdre Brennan designed the interiors, working nicely within the prescribed confines of the space). Audience members eat the holiday meal alongside the actors, consisting of beef tenderloin (nicely cooked but underseasoned), roast turkey (dry), mashed potatoes (too soupy), and green beans (delicious). The final moment of reckoning between central characters Gabriel and Gretta Conroy (Rufus Collins and Melissa Gilbert) occurs in a bedroom on the third floor, its picture window fitted with a hologram that reflects Joyce’s description of the bitter January weather: “snow was general all over Ireland.”
Once the novelty wears off, the dryness of the adaptation sets in. Muldoon and Korelitz are faithful to the source text but sometimes overly prosaic, and without Joyce’s glorious prose to fill in the gaps and build the rich inner lives of the characters, the evening settles into a parade of empty pageantry, lively but ultimately unmemorable. O’Reilly’s direction lets whole stretches of the production lag, particularly during the communal meal. The scene does include the key moments prescribed by Joyce – Gabriel’s annual speech, in which he reflects that “we are living in a less spacious age,” and the singing of “For they are jolly good fellows” to the Morkans and their niece Mary Jane (Kimberly Doreen Burns) – but the drama sags without a way to balance eating and acting. The audience spends most of the scene watching the actors talk amongst themselves, unsure whether we should do the same.
Elsewhere, moments that come alive in the novella fall flat. Gabriel’s testy interaction with Lily, during which he insults her by inquiring after her love life, doesn’t properly register, as it occurs in the whirl of the pre-dinner party. The moment is undoubtedly important to Joyce’s story – Gabriel ends the conversation by awkwardly tipping Lily, reinforcing the class distinction between them – and may have resonated more in a traditional adaptation. Here, it seems a prime candidate for excision.
The tragic dimensions of Freddy Malins, the goodhearted but self-destructive lush who attends the party with his embarrassed mother, are also largely lost. Ciaran Byrne plays the role for comic effect, which doesn’t help matters, but the adaptation loses Joyce’s mournful reflections on Freddy’s character. We hear Freddy’s words but lose the sense of him that Joyce imparts in his narrative writing. Freddy is described in prose as “nearing the climax of his story,” a phrase that can be read with double meaning: he is frequently loquacious, but he is also, likely, nearing death from drink. The current treatment mostly elides that sad fact, turning Freddy instead into just a stock drunk.
Gabriel’s interactions with the Irish Nationalist Molly Ivors come across more strongly, due in large part to Aedín Moloney’s spirited performance. Molly challenges Gabriel’s “West Briton” ways and bourgeois pride, setting up his first moment of honest self-reflection at the end of the story. More than almost any other moment in the adaptation, Muldroon, Korelitz, and O’Reilly give this scene room to breathe, without a surfeit of extraneous business happening simultaneously. Collins, who elsewhere seems unsure in both his Irish accent and his personal carriage, finds depth in the drama when playing against a partner as strong as Moloney.
Alas, such lightning doesn’t strike in the extended finale, when Gretta passionately confesses her lifelong secret: a chaste teenage romance with Michael Furey, a tragic lad who died at seventeen. Gilbert begins the scene pitched to hysterics, crying so forcefully she sent herself into a coughing fit at the performance I attended. But in getting down to the grave business of the scene – Gretta’s tortured reflection that Michael Furey “died for me” – Gilbert’s performance turns rote and wan, as though she had already spent the whole of her emotion.
The Dead, 1904 has proved a durable hit for Irish Rep, and will no doubt return in future seasons. As an experience, it is singular and inviting. But to describe it as a drama, I have to borrow a phrase from its original author: it never manages to make the soul swoon.