It takes audacity to adapt James Joyce’s “Ulysses” for the stage. No wonder Patrick Fitzgerald’s “Gibraltar” — starring himself and Cara Seymour, now at the Irish Repertory Theater — is subtitled “An Adaptation After James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses.’ ” Any stage version can only graze the book’s infinite layers. But there are plenty of those layers here.
“Gibraltar” jettisons Stephen Dedalus, the young academic character whose story threads through the novel, to focus on the advertising salesman Leopold Bloom and his younger wife, Molly. (One early domestic scene — Bloom’s trip to the outhouse for some reading and blithe defecation — demonstrates the play’s fidelity to the book’s candor.)
The couple’s sex life has suffered since the death of an infant son years before, and Bloom hopes that by tolerating Molly’s affair with the macho hothead Blazes Boylan, he will appear more sensitive by comparison.
Molly and her lover are to have a 4 p.m. assignation while Bloom does errands around Dublin, whose 1904 atmosphere is skillfully evoked by Alma Kelliher’s unobtrusive sound design and Sarah Bacon’s costumes. Ms. Seymour plays many of the citizens Bloom briefly encounters: a newsboy, a pharmacist, a bookseller.
As Bloom’s day unfolds, the density of Joyce’s stream-of-consciousness prose — staccato bursts of thought brimming with historical references, aphorisms and wordplay — grows in Mr. Fitzgerald’s delivery. Even when its meaning is elusive, the language sings. (Credit Mr. Fitzgerald and the director, Terry Kinney, for hewing to Joyce’s tone.) Bloom attends a funeral at Glasnevin Cemetery; dines at the Davy Byrnes tavern, where he encounters an Irish republican; and enjoys a reverie at Sandymount Strand.
Act II presents the closing aria: Molly’s soliloquy, a sparkling river of observations, reminiscences and graphic sexual imagery recited at night upon Bloom’s return. (Paul Hudson’s gentle lighting, a field of stars behind a scrim, exquisitely sets the mood.) As Mr. Fitzgerald, playing the Narrator, sits by her bedside, Molly evolves from a dreamy state into a serene rapture. Ms. Seymour, recessive so far, glows.
As Bloom, Mr. Fitzgerald resembles Joyce, though more muscular, while Ms. Seymour is a fair visual approximation of Nora, Joyce’s uneducated wife, indispensable muse and model for Molly. When Mr. Fitzgerald departs from the book, with his Narrator interrupting Molly’s monologue with biblical phrases, he alternates the sacred with the sensual (and to some ears, the obscene). In his bond with Nora, Joyce reveled in such a juxtaposition. In “Gibraltar,” we do as well.
“Gibraltar” runs through July 14 at the Irish Repertory Theater, 132 West 22nd Street, Chelsea; (212) 727-2737, irishrep.org.