Lincoln Center Theater’s Epiphany begins with an ominous rumbling that’s so mighty it might measure on the Richter scale. Dishes and glasses on the set clink and chatter. The effect seems to set the stage for something of enormous magnitude.
Don’t hold your breath. Brian Watkins’s intriguing, but ultimately blurry and low-impact, group portrait inspired by James Joyce’s The Dead emerges more like an artistic exercise or theme and variation on that famous 1914 short story than a fully satisfying drama on its own.
If you’re familiar with the source material and are content picking out points of connection — names, events, and other twists — there is plenty to keep you busy. Otherwise, you might find yourself wondering how many calories actors burn as they navigate staircases set designer John Lee Beatty fashioned for the production.
Like Joyce’s work, the action unfolds at a get-together at an old house in January. A man named Gabriel is a key guest in both stories. In Watkins’s vision, Morkan (Marylouise Burke) is hosting a party that’s all about renewing interest in celebrating epiphany. Gabriel, alas, a renowned author, is a no-show. That’s too bad, since Gabriel alone knows what this gathering is really all about.
Fasten your seat belts, it’s going to be a bumpy party — and a tonally jolting play. Over its intermission-free 110 minutes, the mood meanders from sophisticated dinner party to farce with a bleeding flesh wound to what seems to be shaping up as a murder story — or is it? During that time, the word "epiphany" is uttered close to three dozen times, though no one present has a firm grasp on its definition.
Freddy (C.J. Wilson), a math teacher who drinks too much and just lost his mother, speaks for everybody early on when he inquires, “What is the epiphany, by the way? What are we celebrating?” Loren (Colby Minifie), a bright young woman who’s helping Morkan, says, “I actually don’t know.”
She’s not alone. Aran (Carmen Zilles), Gabriel’s worldly partner attending on his behalf, connects epiphany to the manifestation of miracles. But she’s uncertain. Charlie (Francois Battiste), a lawyer, thinks epiphany may be tied to a literary tradition. His partner, Kelly (Heather Burns), a musician, has no clue.
They and other guests, including Morkan’s elderly friend Ames (Jonathan Hadary), can’t rely on the internet or their phones for help on figuring things out. As everyone arrives they must stow their devices in a box that gets sealed up tighter than a Yondr pouch at Take Me Out.
“Is this what you do on epiphany?” asks Taylor (David Ryan Smith), a marketing pro, as he surrenders his cell. His partner, Sam (Omar Metwally), a psychiatrist with boundary issues who likes to hear himself talk, is in the dark along with everyone else.
Over the course of the shindig, guests make the best of the weird situation. Small talk is made. Worldviews are shared. Wounds both literal and figurative are inflicted. Goose, galette, and gin are consumed. A discordant tune is played on a piano. A wistful song is sung. A dark secret is shared. Snow falls.
In director Tyne Rafaeli’s ensemble cast, a few performances stand out even while the enigmatic play doesn’t leave much of an impression. Burke’s signature quirky style consistently engages. Minifie’s natural performance grounds and energizes the proceedings. Wilson and Hadary bring gentle hits of humanity.
At the end, Morkan delivers a couple lines to the motley partygoers. It struck me — like an epiphany — that she might have also been addressing theatergoers through the playwright’s words. “Thank you all so much for coming,” she says. “I’m sorry none of it made sense.”
Photo credit: Carmen Zilles, C.J. Wilson, Colby Minifie, Marylouise Burke, Omar Metwally, and David Ryan Smith in Epiphany. (Photo by Jeremy Daniel)