The Ryan Case 1873
nytheatre.com review by Victoria Linchong
May 5, 2012
“Watch your step,” the guy at the box office said, “it’s dark in the 1800s.”
I made my way down into the basement of the Lower East Side bar Fontana’s, where the tinny sound of traditional Irish pipes wafted over four sections of folded chairs. Being a little wary of interactive theater, I took a chair in the back near the entrance and was soon joined by my friend, who was as mystified as I was as to what we were about to see. Our conversation was abruptly ended by the jarring screech of a police whistle as a big burly guy wearing a brogue and a derby hat marched through the audience bellowing, “On yer feet! On yer feet, recruits!”
So began The Ryan Case, an interactive promenade theater piece by Live In Theater, loosely based on the grisly unsolved murder of two siblings, Mary and Nicholas Ryan, in 1873.
It turned out that we were fresh recruits in the presence of Chief Detective Thomas F. Byrne, who had apparently decided that the best way to solve the case was to saturate the Sixth Ward with two dozen rookie cops. After stating the gruesome facts of the case, each section of chairs was presented with a satchel containing a map, two murky faux-daguerreotype mug shots, and a “helmet,” which was really a colored baseball cap. We were then sent out into the streets to interrogate people.
My friend gamely donned the purple cap in the bag, which presumably marked us as participants in the play, and we followed the map with our group of intrepid recruits. A Chinese woman with a strange white headdress caught our eye and we wondered if we should cross-examine her. Wrong time period and ethnicity, we decided, but she definitely looked suspicious. We turned the corner and soon spied another woman, costumed in a cap and apron, carrying a pail. A thousand Chinese people swarmed by, ignoring her, even though she was calling out, “Coal for sale!” We crossed the street.
Upon quizzing her, we learned that she was Mrs. Burke, the landlady of the unfortunate Ryans. A garrulous woman, she became more agitated as we peppered her with questions. Chinatown residents began to stop and look on curiously. Furtively taking us around the corner, she revealed a secret to us that she hadn’t told Byrne. We scribbled furiously in the notepads that Byrne had provided us.
As we followed the map, we encountered four more dubious characters—the surly landlord Mr. Burke, loose woman and possible pickpocket Sally Watkins, despondent Russian-Jewish émigré Josef, and the oddly nervous friend Molly Moore. Questions led to more questions. Everyone was suspicious. But it was time to reconvene at Fontana’s to form a conclusion. Byrne instructed each group to give a little announcement. We, the Purple Group, did quite well. All those Agatha Christie novels I read finally paid off.
It was all in good fun, like being in a game of Clue come to life and set in the immigrant Lower East Side of the 1870s. Sure, the historical context to the play was pretty hazy and the improvisational scenes sometimes veered a little too much into histrionics, but there are definitely worse ways to spend a Saturday afternoon than wandering through Chinatown and getting a discounted drink afterward. You might even make some new friends.