Theater Review: Learn how to live from The Dead 1904 – Metro US

Theater Review: Learn how to live from The Dead 1904

Melissa Gilbert and Rufus Collins lead the cast (and audience) in a festive toast during The Dead 1904. Credit: Carol Rosegg

The lively dinner party that has taken over the American Irish Historical Society is done no favors by its title: The Dead 1904.

After a brief sold-out run last year, the Irish Repertory Theatre has brought back its immersive adaptation of James Joyce’s famous short story to the society’s circa-1800s Upper East Side mansion.

The experience begins in the foyer, where the audience has arrived to take part in an Irish family’s gathering for the Feast of the Epiphany. First greeted by the family’s maid, guests are ushered upstairs to the ballroom, then the dining room for a holiday dinner, and finally one of the bedrooms all the while personal and political dramas swirl around them.

As any survivor of a literature course knows, Joyce’s work is about setting many things in motion, but resolving them is not really the point. This first-of-its-kind adaptation ends up being more of a mood piece that visitors can project their own modern-world anxieties onto.

Family gatherings are always a powderkeg, and this one kicks off some spectacular sparks. There’s the maid who reveals a hidden talent for song — not that the lady of the house is having any of it. The secret newspaper columnist who rejects any notion that he’s getting political at home while writing about revolutions abroad. The ne’er-do-well cousin appears to drink not out of need, but to cope with the disappointment that he doesn’t fit into his world. 

Inside or outside the home, we all have our roles to play, and it’s at our own peril that we refuse to conform to them.

The lack of plot is, in a rare treat, not detrimental to the experience. The cast mingles with the audience in every scene but the last, with diversions like period-style dancing and (as all family gathering necessitate) plenty of drinks throughout the play, from a welcome shot of Writer’s Tears whiskey to wine with dinner — an authentic and generous Irish feast prepared for 21st-century tastes by Great Performances.

Throughout, the “dead” lurk everywhere, from customs that have fallen out of favor to the feeling of being alive but out of touch with the world. Instead of allowing existential dread to merely haunt its celebration, The Dead 1904 confronts it in a night that is a feast for the mind and belly, as the best gatherings are. It is a reminder to live well — otherwise, we’re just dying slowly.

The Dead 1904 is playing now through Jan. 7, 2018 at the American Irish Historical Society, 991 Fifth Ave. Tickets start at $150. For more information, call 212-727-2737 or visit irishrep.org.

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