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“Epiphany” is definitely a better title than “The Dead.” Watching Brian Watkins’s new play, “Epiphany,” is also a lot more fun than reading James Joyce’s short story “The Dead.” Then again, that depends on your definition of the word fun.
Watkins’ “Epiphany,” which opened Thursday at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre at Lincoln Center, is very funny, especially in its rambunctious first half. For those theatergoers acquainted with “The Dead,” the falling snow outside the huge windows of John Lee Beatty’s magnificent country-manor set is the first clue that Watkins may be giving us a meditation on the Joyce story. It’s clear that he’s not simply recycling or updating the story when, early in the play, it is announced that Gabriel, the guest of honor, is a no-show at this dinner party. Slightly less obvious but equally seismic is that only one of Gabriel’s elderly aunts, Morkan (Marylouise Burke), hosts the gathering. Her sister, Julia, is only occasionally mentioned — until the end, when she dominates the play.
The time of “Epiphany” is very much “now, for the most part,” as the Playbill reveals, and one married couple invited to the party is same-sex: Sam (Omar Metwally), a psychiatrist and his husband, Taylor (David Ryan Smith), who works “in marketing.”
The enormous pleasure of watching this disastrous dinner party derives from the fact that we’re not guests, just voyeurs. We can watch and not be the victims of Morkan’s mess of a fete. An apparently inedible cooked goose is the least of the problems. Unlike the characters in “The Dead,” the guests in Watkins’ play have only the vaguest idea of what they’re celebrating in the holiday known as Epiphany. Even their host has forgotten, although she did email them a definition, plus various events to be performed, along with their invitation. The problem is, Morkan insists that all her guests put their respective cellphones in a lock box upon arrival. No one can check the invitation and its many attachments.
Technology has divorced us from the wonderment of the unknown, and rituals that used to mean something are now as vacant as our imaginations without cellphones. Morkan wants to make up for about a century of loss in one evening.
Gabriel stays home, but he has sent his female partner, Aran (Carmen Zilles), whom no one has ever met, including Morkan, and she brings with her the speech he was supposed to have delivered to the assembled guests. Aran and then Morkan attempt to read that speech, portions of which are lifted directly from Gabriel’s speech in “The Dead,” but on her way to the party, she dropped the speech in the snow, rendering much of the text blurred beyond legibility.
“Epiphany” begins in a place that the Michael Frayn of “Noises Off” would recognize. Watkins’ amazing achievement is that he uses that kind of physical comedy to lead to a place of mourning and loss and obliteration that Joyce himself would recognize. Morkan and Freddy in “Epiphany” correspond with Kate Morkan and Freddy Malins from “The Dead,” and she has to caution her guests about his messy alcoholism when he makes a trip offstage to the bathroom. The gay couple Sam and Taylor, and a straight couple, Kelly (Heather Burns) and Charlie (Francois Battiste), are pure Watkins inventions.
Tyne Rafaeli directs, and her mastery of handling both the broad comedy and the profound tragedy is remarkable. Among the cast, only Burns resorts to caricature; then again, Watkins’ writing may be his weakest here. The husband-wife fights over her heavy drinking have been lifted from too many other plays and movies.
Most intriguing is how Watkins melds and transposes elements of Gabriel’s wife, Greta, and the tenor Bartell D’Arcy from “The Dead” into the characters Aran and another guest, Ames, played by Jonathan Hadary. Burke and Hadary are veteran actors with long careers in the New York theater. They come at their roles from a comedic perspective, and audiences immediately respond to that good humor as soon as they appear on stage. In “Epiphany,” they perform very much within those comic parameters only to become the play’s bridge that takes us into a place of overwhelming grief.