I could describe Brian Watkins’s “Epiphany,” which opened Thursday night at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, as an existential dinner-party play. Or a satire of academics, armchair psychologists and the general intelligentsia, always trying to find a common language for our ways of living in the world. It could be called a critique of our modern society of self-interest. A statement on grief. Or a ghost story.
I could even call it a kind of poem, making music out of abstractions while traversing the past and the present, the real and the surreal. That this heady work, in a Lincoln Center Theater production directed by Tyne Rafaeli, evades any one definition is a testament to its grand ambitions. In one hour and 50 minutes, “Epiphany” astutely captures a wide swath of ideas without losing its grasp on the hilarious and heartbreaking experience of being a person in the world.
On a January evening in a secluded old house in the middle of nowhere, Morkan (Marylouise Burke, perfect as a jittery sexagenarian) hastily prepares for the holiday known as Epiphany, her itinerary packed with drinks, speeches, poems, songs, dancing and a goose feast. Which would be fine if anyone had read the full dossier Morkan sent along beforehand — or if anyone, Morkan included, actually understood what this archaic, forgotten ritual is.
Thankfully Gabriel — Morkan’s beloved nephew, a revered writer and public intellectual, and the guest of honor — will be arriving to lead the festivities, and also to explain them. When Gabriel fails to show, instead sending Aran (an ethereal Carmen Zilles) in his place, a night of awkward exchanges, misunderstandings and spirited debates evolves into a dreamlike meditation on mortality.
Also attending this vaguely defined soiree are Loren (Colby Minifie, currently in the Amazon series “The Boys”), a sober, vegan 20-something, helping with the preparations; Freddy (C.J. Wilson), a middle-aged alcoholic teacher; Kelly (Heather Burns), a pretentious pianist; Charlie (Francois Battiste), a smartly dressed, self-important lawyer; Sam (Omar Metwally), a pedantic psychiatrist with many opinions; Taylor (David Ryan Smith), his comically snide and heavy-drinking husband; and Ames (the reliably dry-witted Jonathan Hadary), an old friend of Morkan’s and her conspicuously absent sister Julia’s.
In a rapid series of processions and introductions, we hear the characters before we see them; they ascend from an unseen lower level and appear in the parlor room of an old house.
John Lee Beatty’s antique set design, with the main flight of stairs leading up into an ominous darkness, establishes an unsettling mood, strangely removed from the present day. And Isabella Byrd’s ghostly lighting summons an eerie “Fall of the House of Usher” vibe before illuminating a stunning surprise backdrop: We are watching an evening gathering during a January flurry, snow fitfully descending past the gnarled fingers of tree branches outside the towering windows.
There’s not much action in “Epiphany,” so the play’s dynamism is all in the controlled chaos of the dialogue: interruptions, overlapping voices, heavy pauses. Watkins (whose plays include “Wyoming” and who created the recent time-loop western series “Open Range”) effortlessly extracts the humor from the partygoers’ pretensions and posturing, which are just a cover for the insecurities they feel in the modern world — and in their own lives.
Absurd developments offer punctuation: One character makes inappropriate bathroom jokes, another performs a “purposefully untitled” piano composition, and after one of the guests suffers a dinnertime injury, the others debate which alcohol to use to sterilize the wound.
While Watkins leans into scorn for the insufferable urbanites one-upping one another, he seems to treasure the more introspective figures of Morkan and Ames. And there is plenty of beauty in the play’s abstractions; at its heart “Epiphany” is a love letter to the indefinable and unnameable.
“As soon as you try and define love as an empirical thing you’ve suddenly lost the essence of love itself,” Aran says at one point in the night. “It’s bigger than our connotations.” And in a rare moment of drunken insight, Freddy recalls how he heard a poet once explain how the creative process is an act of “creating time … that the space between seconds and minutes actually like widens and deepens … as if eternity was inhabiting you.”
Empiricism, existentialism, solipsism — “Epiphany” sends a lot of -isms into space, just to laugh at the volley. (“Well now we’re just saying words,” Ames points out.) Occasionally the play seems to fall down the rabbit hole of its own philosophical musings, but “Epiphany” never remains there too long; the humor, which works at several different registers, from barbed irony to tragicomic lampoonery to wacky physical comedy, reins in the play’s haughtier inclinations.
Speaking of haughty — audiences may or may not catch the specter of another work within “Epiphany,” James Joyce’s “The Dead,” from his collection “Dubliners.” “Epiphany,” which first premiered in Ireland in 2019, in a production from the renowned Druid Theater Company, replicates some of the characters’ relationships and exchanges in “The Dead,” uses many of the same character names and echoes the general existential theme.
References and snippets of the original text may fly right past anyone unfamiliar with “The Dead,” or anyone who hasn’t picked up “Dubliners” since college. No matter. There’s more than enough in “Epiphany” for it to stand on its own. See it and ruminate; this is a play “bigger than our connotations.”
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