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Theatre Review by Howard Miller - June 23, 2022

Marylouise Burke
Photo by Jeremy Daniel
Playwright Brian Watkins has dipped his quill into the inkwell of James Joyce and has come up with a variation on Joyce's "The Dead" with his play Epiphany, opening tonight at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center. It is an altogether thrilling work of theatrical artistry, splendidly directed by Tyne Rafaeli, supported with outstanding design elements, and superbly acted by its cast of nine, with much of the evening resting on an extraordinary performance by Marylouise Burke.

I cannot remember the last time I sat spellbound for two solid hours (no intermission, nor should there be one). This is a play by a master craftsman who has woven together a story about love and loss, regret and forgiveness, memories and even memory itself. More, it is also about the importance of what so many have lost or set aside during the time of pandemic, namely our personal relationships and social interactions with one another that we have replaced with various forms of technological media in lieu of genuine companionship.

The setting as described by the playwright is "a very old house, on the banks of a large river, just north of a big city." Not hard to imagine just such a place along the Hudson, north of New York City. As designed by John Lee Beatty, the set looks both majestic and tired. Two long solid-looking staircases lead up to the second and third floors. The main room is set up with tables and chairs and a fully stocked drink cart, all in preparation for a dinner party. There is an old piano off to one side, with a roaring fireplace on the other. Through a pair of double-height windows, we can see snow falling steadily outside. Both Beatty's set and Isabella Byrd's lighting (lots of shadows and dimming effects) give everything an appropriately eerie look. All of this is nicely accompanied by Daniel Kluger's original music and sound design.

At the opening, an older woman referred to only by her family name of Morkan (like several of the others, this name comes directly from "The Dead") is fluttering about the room and up and down the stairs, fussing over everything as she awaits the arrival of her guests. Let me stop here to heap praise on Marylouise Burke, an altogether wondrous actress who specializes in taking on idiosyncratic characters (in David Lindsey-Abaire's Kimberly Akimbo and Fuddy Meers, to name a couple of examples) and running away with them. The role of Morkan places her completely in her element, and she turns it into the performance of a lifetime. Quirky, yes, and sometimes confused, but never cartoonishly so as she grows into someone we genuinely care about.

Morkan, who is accompanied by a younger acquaintance, Loren (Colby Minifie), is wanting everything to be welcoming for her visitors. They have, after all, braved the winter storm in order to meet with and hear a presentation by the guest of honor, Gabriel, a man of great intellect who will be speaking about Epiphany, the religious holiday, its Pagan origins, and its spiritual and philosophic significance. The timing of the dinner party coincides with the January holiday, also known as Three Kings Day.

The Company
Photo by Jeremy Daniel
As the company arrives, alone and in couples, there is a certain amount of awkwardness among them. Morkan knows them all, but they do not all know one another, and so they keep the chitchat polite and light while waiting. Unfortunately, everyone learns at the last minute that Gabriel, rather like Samuel Beckett's Godot, will not be showing up after all. Still, Morkan is determined to carry on, and, happily, Gabriel has sent in his place his partner, Aran (Carmen Zilles), a gracious stand-in, rather more sophisticated than the others but the epitome of politesse. Aran has brought with her several pages Gabriel has given her to read, though, unfortunately, they fell into the snow along the way and only a few sections are legible.

You would not be mistaken if any of this seems to be entering into the realm of theater of the absurd. But the playwright manages to come up with a logical explanation for every mishap, so that even the oddest of moments comes off largely as anchored in reality. This includes an impromptu performance of an atonal piano piece by one of the inebriated guests, Kelly (Heather Burns), and the accidental wounding of Morkan's dear friend Ames (Jonathan Hadary). It is only when everyone is sated by the repast of roasted goose and all the accompaniments, and tongues have been loosened by multiple visits to the drink cart, that the tone turns darker and more aligned with the likes of Beckett or Eugène Ionesco. Morkan shares a sad secret. Aran sings a folk tune that strikes the already-injured Ames to the core of his soul. And one by one, the guests depart, vaguely promising to return the following year.

The only previous play by Brian Watkins I have seen is My Daughter Keeps Our Hammer. That was back in 2014 at the Flea Theater, and even then I found his work to be both haunted and haunting. The circumstances and setting of Epiphany are different, but I'd say that "haunted" and "haunting" are still the adjectives of choice. Even with the adaptations and variations drawn from Joyce and others, few contemporary playwrights have such a command of style, tone, and riveting dialog (Annie Baker, Sam Shepard, and Tom Stoppard come to mind). Along with the fine design elements and exquisite performances, Epiphany is simply not to be missed.

Through July 24, 2022
Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center
150 West 65th Street (between Broadway and Amsterdam)
Tickets online and current performance schedule: