Past Reviews

Off Broadway Reviews

The Dead, 1904

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - December 9, 2016

Kate Burton and Boyd Gaines
Photo by Carol Rosegg

Because so much of stage acting is keeping the small small while also allowing it to appear big, it's easy to forget that you can remove the additional amplification and still get a transfixing performance in the right venue. For his production of the The Dead, 1904 for the Irish Repertory Theatre, CiarĂ¡n O'Reilly has found a remarkable location in the American Irish Historical Society, located just across Fifth Avenue from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It's not a theater at all, but a three-story, turn-of-the-20th-century townhouse in which all the rooms, just like the people who inhabit them, have a story to tell. And when you unleash great-with-a-capital-G actors like Boyd Gaines and Kate Burton into them, and you're able to observe them from mere inches away, the resulting magic is enough to more than cancel out any dramaturgical mediocrity.

In Paul Muldoon and Jean Hanff Korelitz's adaptation of James Joyce's famous short story from Dubliners, Gaines and Burton are playing Gabriel and Gretta Conroy, who are attending the Epiphany party of the Morkan sisters in January of 1904, but are preoccupied with woes and history that no holiday merriment may dispel. You gaze as they put on a show of engagement before dinner, traipsing through small talk, musical performances, and the social niceties expected of gatherings such as this. But their resolve is clearly weakening, and they must endure its cracking through and after the meal until they retire for the evening, at which point there's nothing left for them to do but reveal the truth of their secret pain and confront it—or not—and deal with the aftermath.

There's not a lot of story here per se, especially until the final scene in the bedroom, when the final barriers fall; much of the problem of this spin on the story is that, unlike Joyce, you're not able to probe the characters' inner minds and hearts. You're reliant, then, on deriving the story and, more important, the personalities from what's said and done, but little is, particularly from Gabriel and Gretta. The thinness of the plot is unavoidable in these circumstances, and, were you sitting in a traditional auditorium watching this unfold beneath a proscenium arch, there wouldn't be much fulfilling about it. The scenery is irresistibly authentic, yes (the "properties and interior design" are credited to Deirdre Brennan), and the costumes (Leon Dobkowski), lights (Michael Gottlieb), and sound (M. Florian Staab) are of the highest quality, but there simply isn't enough for even first-tier actors to fill with sufficient meaning to project beyond a row or two.

But in a setting like this, you don't even need that much. When you're literally brushing elbows with the actors, able to look into and behind their eyes, everything you need to know is communicated when not even a word is said. Standing some five feet away from Burton, as the guests were filing out from the party around her, I was able to see the crippling exhaustion and emotional anguish in Gretta that would only be fully explained (or, if you will, exorcised) in the following scene. Without saying anything to me, or even looking at me directly, she made me complicit in her quiet deception. And when that last scene arrived and Gabriel attempted to comfort Gretta, I found that Gaines had me trapped just as much as Gabriel and his wife in a corrosive intimacy that could no longer be ignored.

Kate Burton and Boyd Gaines
Photo by Carol Rosegg

I felt, as it's seldom possible to do, as though I really was a part of the play—in no small part because I actually was. As Gabriel explains what he imagines: "My soul has approached the region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead. I am conscious of, but cannot apprehend, their wayward and flickering existence. My own identity is fading out into a grey impalpable world: the solid world itself which these dead had one time reared and lived in is dissolving and dwindling." My few fellow audience members and I (only about 40 total are allowed per performance) were, like the house itself, closing in on these lives, capturing them no less certainly than Gaines did us before his final revelations.

O'Reilly's conceit, then, is anything but a gimmick—only by following Gabriel, Gretta, and the others through their routine celebration can you properly arrive where they are. You need to pass through the friendly foyer, where the maid Lily (a delightful Clare O'Malley) escorts you into the party, so that you might be gradually indoctrinated in the very different world. Only by sharing their humble, albeit delicious, repast (stuffed turkey, fig-and-cocoa beef tenderloin, mashed potatoes, green beans, bread pudding for dessert, all catered by the Great Performances company) can you understand the rituals and traditions that nature and define them. What's absent in traditional development, which begins inside and radiates out, here distills the externalities into something so precious that it becomes a part of your own inner being. If it's being true, a slice of life must evolve into a slice of death—that is, after all, ultimately where we're all headed.

For these reasons, it's easy, perhaps necessary, to forgive The Dead, 1904 a lot, even if you don't want to. The sisters, Kate and Julia, are played with limited vividness by Patricia Kilgarriff and Patti Perkins, but don't register as real support; the various musical acts, which include a forceful violin solo by Heather Martin Bixler and an achingly sweet tenor rendition of "The Lass of Aughrim" by Karl Scully, become more about killing time than they are imparting flavor. From a pure writing standpoint, Joyce integrated such moments better because he never had to justify them. When they acquire three-dimensionality, some justification is, sadly, required.

If you don't get that, what you do get from Gaines and Burton is extraordinary in its own way, and the experience of "haunting" Gabriel and Gretta, slowly squeezing away their essential essence merely by standing where I shouldn't and then being drenched in the ensuing deluge of feeling, is one I won't soon forget. It hardly matters, then, that The Dead, 1904 is in no way a terrific play—it is, nonetheless, theatre at its most absorbing.

The Dead, 1904
Through January 7, 2017
The Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 West 22nd Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: OvationTix