By: Isa Goldberg
July 4, 2022: It verges on being a little too “Arsenic and Old Lace,” but in the agile hands of Marylouise Burke, “Epiphany” is a deliciously acidic satire about people who poison it. Brian Watkin’s new play at Lincoln Center Theater at The Mitzi E. Newhouse plays on the familiar trope of a dinner party.
It’s the hallmark event in such American classics as Donald Margulies’ “Dinner with Friends,” for instance, in which shifting loyalties, and ageing are served with a dose of comedy. Here, in “Epiphany,” the swinging doors, and pratfalls add a tad of savory farce. But as directed by Tyne Rafaeli, the satire at work twists to the more dramatic flavors of our day – the horror film, and the supernatural. Ironically, nothing just happens in these alternate realities. That we often miss their meaning reflects our certain disregard.
Opening with the sound effects of a storm (designed by Daniel Kluger) – an immense primal roar, and flickering lights (Isabella Byrd) erupt in the black space. As soon as the guests arrive, however, a traditional drawing room scene takes place. It’s the beauty of the overheard conversation that forecasts some well-known triteness between friends.
As we rarely see such a large cast – nine actors on stage, in a straight play – the volume of humanity huddled together feels formidable. Rafaeli’s rendering of subtle stage tableaus – understated visual statements about gathering are visually arresting. And the characters are noticeably diverse in race, age, sexual orientation, occupation, etc.
At this gathering of friends, we meet a young lawyer, (Francois Battiste) and his self-obsessed skinny wife (Heather Burns). What they may lack in class they compensate for, with style. Battiste’s evokes the flair-your-tailcoat, and move Fred Astaire style, while Burns’ plays herself as a diva of the classic film variety.
Morkan’s helper and friend Loren (Colby Minifie) in all yellow, offers both a light in the dark, and a message about courage, or the absence of it. The most down-to-earth among them is C.J. Wilson, an alcoholic school teacher grieving the loss of a father who passed away a while ago.
Still, what would a dinner party be without a celebrity guest. This one never arrives, dispensing of the situation by sending a speech which his wife, played by Carmen Zilles, is to read. His is an ordinary dismissal, not any more alarming than the fact that Julia, the host’s sister who was living with her, also isn’t coming.
As portrayed by Marylouise Burke, Morkan is a fabulous host – a raconteur of sorts with wiry arms flailing. Even Burke, with her wily manner, can’t think of what more she can do to endear herself to her friends. While she is clearly confused, delusional even, she has the energy of a little league baseball player, and the moxie of an uncaged gerbil.
Pathos breaks loose when Sam (Omar Metwally), the gay psychiatrist who’s married to a black man (David Ryan Smith), with whom he has children, serves a special dish he made for the occasion, a galette.
How cutting a pancake turns into a conversation about love, humanity, truth, and empiricism is supposed to be very edgy. That that knife lands in one of the guest’s biceps is indeed bleak humor.
It’s a precipitous moment, however, leading to discoveries about others, who have been damaged and dismissed, and for whom we only now experience the real loss. In the end, the story, left in the hands of Morkan and Ames, opines sadly on our inability to reach beyond ourselves. It’s not at all sentimental. Beyond intellectual pretenses, a simple, quiet observation takes hold, that by the time we’re able to appreciate life, it’s almost over.
Indeed, it’s a quirky play. It’s also especially fun to watch Marylouise Burke perform theatrical trickery, for the benefit of comedy, of course. But as one can feel at plays centered around dinner parties, the author has bitten off more than he can reasonably chew. At least, the satire is too broad for us to take it all in.
Costumes by Montana Levi Blanco (“The Skin of Our Teeth”) speak to the characters’ individuality. Pot bellies and sinuous bodies alike are finely displayed. John Lee Beatty’s set – a great big old mansion somewhere in the snowy woods, creates the ambiance for telling ghost stories and secrets of the unknown.
Mitzi Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center
150 W. 65th Street in NYC.
Tue 7pm; Wed 2pm & 8pm; Thu 7pm; Fri 8pm; Sat 2pm & 8pm; Sun 3pm. Running time: one hour, 50 mins. with no intermission. $92. www.telecharge.com. June 23—July 24, 2022
Photography: Julieta Cervantes