By: Paulanne Simmons
June 27,2022: I must admit I read James Joyce’s “The Dead” so many years ago that I had no idea what the short story was about when I saw Brian Watkins’ Epiphany. But even if I had remembered it word-for-word, I don’t think I would have enjoyed the play any the better. This is because, absent the characters’ names and the dinner party setting, it’s doubtful even Joyce would recognize his story.
True, John Lee Beatty’s set, with its ominous staircases, shadowy lighting and large windows that let us glimpse the snow falling heavily outdoors, is superb. And Marylouise Burke, as the dotty Morkan, leads a wonderful cast made up of the guests she has invited to a dinner celebrating the Epiphany:
Ames (Jonathan Hadary) is Morkan’s friend of 47 years. Loren (Colby Minifie) is a new 20ish friend who is helping Morkan with this sumptuous goose dinner, even though she’s a vegan. Freddie (C.J. Wilson) is a teacher with a drinking problem. Kelly (Heather Burns) is a pianist with a drinking problem. Charlie (Francois Battiste) is a lawyer who doesn’t seem to have any problems at all. And there’s a gay couple, Sam (Omar Metwally), a psychiatrist and his husband, Taylor (David Ryan Smith).
Much of the dialogue is quite funny, if it has little dramatic substance. A great deal of the conversation is about what the Epiphany really is. A literary movement? A pagan festival? It seems extraordinary that in a country with a predominantly Christian population, so many people could be so ignorant. The rest of the play’s 110 minutes (without intermission) is taken up by conversation among well-heeled intellectuals ruminating over the profundities of life. If Samuel Beckett’s Estragon and Vladimir had gone to college, they might have sounded like this gang.
More striking is what the conversation does not reveal: how Morkan knows all these people, how many of them know each other, what kind of relationship the guests have with their host.
There is a smattering of action, most of it absurd. Ames stabs himself with a knife while lying under the table, but he appears to be in no pain and his wound is bloodless. Loren accidentally pushes the knife in deeper in a move that reminds one of the Three Stooges. Kelly uses fingers and elbows to play something everyone would rather not hear on the piano.
From the very beginning we know this is going to be an unusual night. Director Tyne Rafaeli tells us with ominous sounds that start the show. Soon Morkan informs all her guests they must put their cell phones in a box she has provided for the evening. We can feel for them.
What’s more, as the evening proceeds, it becomes apparent the guests have no idea the role they are to play in the festivities, because no one has read the instructions that came with the invitation. Or perhaps there really were no instructions at all. As a result, no one has brought a poem, no one knows the song Morkan wants them to sing, and they are not prepared to dance with each other.
Perhaps some of this confusion would have been cleared up if Morkan’s beloved nephew, Gabriel, had been able to make it to the dinner. But, as he is suffering from profound depression at the time, he has sent Aran (Carmen Zilles), a pleasant but passionless replacement. Aran arrives with the speech Gabriel was to have made, but as luck would have it, she dropped the speech in the snow on the way to Morkan’s home, leaving only tantalizing hints of what he had to say.
It’s not until dinner has been consumed and dessert is about to be served that anyone notices Morkan’s sister, Julia, is absent. Morkan’s sorrowful explanation might have pulled everything together and made Epiphany a truly moving play. But by this time, many people in the audience may just want to get out.
Epiphany runs through July 24 at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, 150 West 65 Street. Photography: Jeremy Daniel