Monday, July 18, 2022

Epiphany: Death and Community

The cast of Epiphany. (Photo: Jeremy Daniel)

The new Brian Watkins play Epiphany, which closed last weekend at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, is wildly ambitious and wildly erratic, and the two hours without intermission really began to feel long by the final half-hour. You’d have to account it a failure, but it’s an imaginative, fascinating one, a phrase I wouldn’t apply to, say, the generously reviewed POTUS or The Minutes. There were certainly some high points in the New York theatre season: The Lehman Trilogy, Girl from the North Country and Skeleton Crew, all of which I saw before COVID (the first during its run in London’s West End, the last at Boston’s Huntington Theatre), the Lynn Nottage/Ricky Ian Gordon opera of Nottage’s play Intimate Apparel and the Mint Theater’s recent revival of Elizabeth Baker’s 1909 Chains. A Case for the Existence of God didn’t reach down deep enough, but it had ideas and a pair of splendid actors, Kyle Beltran and Will Brill. The other shows I saw weren’t much good and left little or nothing behind to contemplate. But you couldn’t say the same about Epiphany, which was directed by Tyne Rafaeli. It’s often very funny and occasionally quite moving, and it tickles the brain.

The play is a modern take on James Joyce’s “The Dead,” maybe the greatest short story in English and the source of many subsequent works, including an overlooked stage musical, which opened on Broadway in 2000, and a 1987 movie version, the last film John Huston made, that gets my vote for the best film adaptation of a classic literary work. Further, “The Dead” has inspired a number of writers to attempt their own revisions, with the title story in Edna O’Brien’s 1990 collection Lantern Slides soaring above the others. In Epiphany a group of guests in singles and pairs, strangers to each other but not to their aging, quicksilver hostess, Morkan (Marylouise Burke), arrive in an early January snowstorm to celebrate a long-forgotten holiday. No one is quite sure what the occasion imports, and no one got around to opening the attachments Morkan emailed along with the invitation, so they haven’t learned the song she expected them all to sing and they arrive unable to make the presentations she counted on them for. They’re game but unconscious – and baffled by her calls for their participation. The guests include two couples, one straight and one gay. The first consists of Charlie (Francois Battiste), a lawyer, and his wife, Kelly (Heather Burns), a pianist; the second of Sam (Omar Metwally), a psychiatrist, and his husband Taylor (David Ryan Smith), who works in finance. Freddy (C.J. Wilson) is a teacher. Ames (Jonathan Hadary) has known Morkan the longest – forty-five years. The guest of honor is to be Morkan’s nephew Gabriel, a writer whom she tasked with delivering a kind of keynote, but he has sunk into depression, so he sends his free-spirited partner, Aran (Carmen Zilles), in his place. The other conspicuously absent family member is Morkan’s sister Julia. The youngest member of the party is Loren (Colby Minifie), who met Morkan in a discussion group and has kindly volunteered to help her with the elaborate preparations. But since she neglected to mention to Morkan that she’s vegan and doesn’t eat gluten, it turns out that, except for a plate of pickles, there’s nothing she can eat on the heavily laden table. Also, owing to the relative isolation of this expansive family house (impressively designed by John Lee Beatty) and the age of its grid, the lights keep dimming out. (Isabella Byrd, who lit the stage beautifully, does her most expressive finest work with the falling snow behind the upstage glass door.)

If you know Joyce’s story, then one of the pleasures of the play is to watch and listen as the allusions pile up. Until its final section, “The Dead” takes place – in Dublin in the early twentieth century – at the annual Christmas party given by the spinster Morkan sisters, Kate and Julia (everyone calls the hostess of the Epiphany dinner simply Morkan, but her first name is indeed Kate) and their niece Mary Jane, familiar figures in the Dublin musical world. The guest list includes a celebrated singer, who declines the invitation to sing publicly but, off in a side room, performs the haunting Irish ballad “The Lass of Aughrim” for the benefit of a young woman he’s courting, and it stirs tender and painful memories in Gretta Conroy, who is married to the Morkan sisters’ nephew Gabriel. In Watkins’s version, Kelly is the only professional musician (her impromptu piano piece is awful), but at the end of the evening Aran, who has a distinctly Irish name, sings the same song. Freddy is Watkins’s version of the alcoholic Freddy Malins, whose eruptions are both embarrassing and likable; his demanding mother, whose disapproval cows him continually, is, like Mary Jane, referred to briefly but doesn’t make an appearance.  More radically, Watkins has eliminated Joyce’s protagonist, Gabriel, through whose voice almost all of the story is relayed. The story’s Gabriel is entrusted with carving the goose –the centerpiece of the feast here as well – and reading a speech, but Aran’s Gabriel has sent his speech with Aran. Unfortunately, it fell in the snow and only a section of it is legible. But it is indeed straight out of Joyce. Just like Joyce, Watkins climaxes his narrative with a tale of death for which the teller feels tremendous guilt. And of course there’s the ever-present snow, “falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling,” that blankets Joyce’s story and especially its unforgettable ending.

The small disasters in Joyce’s story – like Freddy’s besotted appearance, though he has “taken the pledge” (to give up booze) just recently; and the bad temper of Mr. Brown (on whom the effects of drink are more unpleasant than they are with Freddy); and Gabriel’s ill-placed annoyance with the banter of one of his teaching colleagues, the determinedly Republican suffragette Molly Ivors – are minor. The apparently romantic unhappiness of the Morkan sisters’ maid, Lily, is a side note that Joyce dispenses with very quickly. Nothing occurs to truly disturb the communal nature of the feast; even the subject of death, which the characters continually return to, mostly through their reminiscences of those no longer among them, reinforces the feeling of community. “The Dead” is a deeply warm and congenial piece of writing, in that sense on a par with Dickens, whose Christmas scenes Joyce was surely thinking of. And its trajectory is Gabriel’s movement from a position of emotional distance from the community to an acknowledgement of his place in it – which happens, ironically, when he learns that his beloved wife Gretta is nursing the memory of her first love, a boy who died long before she met Gabriel. In Epiphany Watkins gets considerable comic mileage out of the disasters, and out of the guests’ awkwardness and feelings of inadequacy (even though Morkan is as accommodating as she can manage), as well as out of the overlapping dialogue. After all, these are not genteel Victorian bourgeois, and they don’t even know each other, so there’s an Alice in Wonderland quality about the whole affair, with everyone except for Morkan (who’s a little like the White Queen in Through the Looking-Glass) and perhaps Ames, who feels at home here, playing the role of Alice. But just as in Joyce, everyone is ultimately absorbed into this new community, forged by Morkan and the elusive but strongly felt bond of Epiphany. Watkins’s Loony Tunes approach in the first hour and the alterations he makes to the story may seem to be subverting it, but he roams away from it only to re-enter it.

However, most of the tonal shifts don’t come off, and I think that eliminating the humor almost entirely in the second half is a mistake – especially because both he and director Rafaeli are better at comedy. The moments when the characters discourse, their philosophizing occasioned by what they come to learn about Epiphany, are dull, and they keep bringing the play to a standstill. The tension at the core of the play is between the rational, for which Sam is the spokesperson, and the ephemeral. There are exceptions, scenes where Watkins and Rafaeli get the serious material to work, particularly Ames’s recitation of a ghostly childhood memory late in the evening, though Hadary is such a wonderful actor that it’s hard to tell who should get the lion’s share of the credit for this interlude. (I’d have to read the speech to make up my mind about it.) The rest of the cast is good except for Burns, who overplays everything she does and, regrettably, Marylouise Burke. Her Morkan is pixie-ish, rushing and almost floating through the room, and she reads her lines in what sounds like a scratchy alto version of a baby voice. For the first few scenes I found these choices charming, but by the time the play moved into the final half-hour they were driving me out of my mind. The role is very tricky; it really needs an actress who’s sui generis and who doesn’t look like she’s acting, like Linda Hunt.

I admired Watkins’s effort greatly, and judging from his photo in the playbill and the fact that he’s a New Dramatist resident playwright I gather he’s a young man. He clearly has talent, and considering the ambitiousness of this project, it’s not surprising that it works only in bits and pieces. His most recent work is an eight-episode Prime series called The Outer Range, a sci-fi western set in Wyoming that he created and most of which he wrote, starring Josh Brolin, Imogen Poots and Lili Taylor. It will be intriguing to see what he comes up with next.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.   

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