The Ryan Case 1873 is a politically incorrect production in the best tradition of Norman Lear’s iconic television series “All in the Family, with equal-handed disparagements of the Irish, the Italians, and the Jews. If you’re particularly ethnically sensitive, you’re sure to find something in it to offend you, but for those with a healthy sense of humor, this is an under-the-radar show not to be missed.
We attend the theatre a lot – not just on Broadway but off Broadway and off off Broadway as well. Yet we find that we almost always tend to do so in relatively established venues, that is in real theatres with clear demarcations between actors and audiences where there are stages for the actors and seats for audience participants. Last Saturday, however, we opted for something a little different: we attended a production of The Ryan Case 1873, an interactive, theatrical murder mystery that blurred the traditional distinction between cast and audience. Presented by Carlo D'Amore and Live IN Theater Productions, the play was performed at the Church of the Transfiguration and in the alleys, parks, and streets of Chinatown where audience members discovered that they, themselves, had somehow become an integral part of the production.
The show began for us as soon as we walked through a “hidden” side entrance to the church on Mosco Street in Chinatown (and through an apparent time warp, worthy of a Jack Finney novel), emerging in “Police Headquarters” in the notorious “Five Points” area of downtown Manhattan in 1873. It was there that we discovered that we, together with another 30-odd audience members, had become “rookie detectives” who were about to work in concert to help solve a murder case based on a real unsolved crime that had shocked the community 138 years earlier. During our subsequent two-hour journey through the byways of Chinatown, we searched for clues and encountered and interacted with a number of unusual characters from New York City’s past, all aptly garbed in appropriate period costumes, and all connected to the case in one way or another, as we tried to solve the mystery.
The case involved the unexplained deaths of Nicholas Ryan and his sister Mary in the boarding house in which they resided in 1873, he, having been stabbed, and she, having been strangled. Was it a murder-suicide? A robbery gone awry? A crime of passion? In seeking to discover the truth, after being briefed by a stereotypically Irish Chief of Police, we wandered through the streets of Chinatown (which had miraculously become the streets of the “Five Points” area of a century ago) where we encountered and questioned Patrick Burke (Nicholas’ and Mary’s alcoholic landlord); Mrs. Burke (Patrick’s battered wife); Sally Watkins (a neighborhood streetwalker and Mary’s friend); Benjamin Ryan (Nicholas’ and Mary’s brother and employer); an “Israelite,” scorned by the community but befriended by Mary; and a one-eyed “honest” cop.
I must say that our expectations had not been very high when we opted to attend this production. At best, we thought we might be mildly entertained. And, at worst, we reckoned that we’d just kill a couple of hours in Chinatown (a neighborhood that we generally enjoy visiting anyway, if only for the food!). But we were very pleasantly surprised: the show turned out to vastly exceed our expectations and I’d enthusiastically recommend it to anyone seeking an afternoon of unusual and offbeat fun in a great neighborhood.
The play was intelligently structured and well-written, providing for a variety of reasonable Rashoman-like interpretations of what might actually have occurred. The actors’ costuming was delightful, reinforcing the sense that we had indeed traveled back in time to the post-Civil War period in New York. And the entire cast was absolutely terrific, interacting with members of the audience by elaborating on their roles with clever improvisations that further enhanced the overall experience.
For those looking for something different to do on a Saturday afternoon, here is one show I can heartily recommend!