There is much in Susan Mosakowski's new play at the Flea Theater that is derived from James Joyce. Most visibly, perhaps, is the show's title; Nighttown was Joyce's name for the red-light district of Dublin. If you're a fan of Joyce's work, particularly Ulysses, you'll probably find Nighttown fascinating.
Or at least parts of it. There are two distinct plays fighting each other for control of Nighttown. One is lifted strongly from Ulysses, the other merely uses Joyce's work as part of its own storytelling. Before the end of the evening, as you are most likely able to surmise, the two combine, leaving you unsure of where one begins and the other leaves off.
Does this work? In part, yes. This is due mainly to the efforts of Matthew Maguire and Michael Ryan, who portray two inmates in a Dublin asylum. Caesar (Ryan) was interred because he attempted to murder his adulterous wife, while Leo Kettle, played Maguire, thinks he murdered his wife's lover, but can't be sure.
Caesar, it is quickly discovered, is obsessively enamored of James Joyce and his writing. He latches onto his roommate's name and attempts to remake him as Leo Bloom, the central figure of Ulysses. His job gets easier as Leo's connection to the real world grows fainter, and it isn't long before Caesar himself begins to believe he truly is James Joyce himself.
It's a rather complicated story, yes, but Mosakowski (who also directed the production) has made sure you don't need to know Ulysses to follow the action. Mosakowski always puts the dramatic focus in the right places, both in her script and her direction, as well as treating the script with lighter or comic moments, particularly necessary when Leo and Caesar expound at length - as they are wont to do - on the horrors that brought them to the asylum.
Ryan and Maguire are both fine in their roles, but Maguire makes Leo more sympathetic. Ryan's character elicits a cooler performance from him, and while he presents effectively the delicacy and drive of Caesar, the artistic passion - that of a Shakespearean actor wishing to remake a neophyte in his own image - is lacking. Why, then, is Caesar behaving this way?
Simple insanity is suggested, but it feels too easy; from where did the insanity spring? Kyle Chepulis's hospital set suggests more an efficient, friendly hospital than one that might drive the characters so deep into fantasy. That makes the moments in the real world less believable, less centered, and the flights of fancy in Joyce's universe more grounded. Mosakowski's work almost suggests that was the point; she makes transitions between the hospital and the world of Joyce at the drop of a hat so that you, like the characters, may be unsure of where you are at any given moment.
Those moments are always the most clever, the ones that suggest what Mosakowski had in mind all along. They're the ones that make Nighttown watchable and worthwhile, that help change the confusion of the characters into intriguing if never spellbinding drama for the audience.