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Theatre in Review: Epiphany (Lincoln Center Theater/Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre)

Carmen Zilles, C. J. Wilson, Colby Minifie, Marylouise Burke, Omar Metwally, David Ryan Smith. Photo: Jeremy Daniel

The Feast of the Epiphany, as you may know, celebrates the visit of the Magi to the infant Jesus Christ. This fact eludes nearly everyone in Brian Watkins' new play, even though they are gathering for dinner to celebrate it. One of them believes Epiphany is pagan, "this time of Peruvian something." Another wonders, "Wasn't there like a major epiphany movement in literature or something and people started celebrating it?" Another correctly identifies the connection to the Magi, but this leads to an argument about whether they are also the Three Kings.

As you can tell, everyone is in a muddle, and as the evening wears on, it only gets worse. The guests at this dinner party are connected to the hostess, Morkan, but are largely unknown to each other. (Morkan, played by the magnificently dotty Marylouise Burke, is a faintly mysterious presence herself, a woman of a certain age living, apparently alone, in a mildly rundown mansion -- although, given her wide circle of friends, she is no Miss Havisham.) All are eager to meet the guest of honor, Gabriel, Morkan's nephew and a writer of note, who, she says, is "going to do a whole...overview thingy and give a speech with the history and all the answers to the whole yadda yadda." But Gabriel fails to appear. Instead, his girlfriend Aran (Carmen Zilles), whom no one has seen before, arrives alone, saying that he has "sunk into a very deep depression."

Adding to the general unease, nobody bothered to read the multiple attachments that came with Morkan's invitation, meaning they are unprepared to take part in her scheduled group activities, which include singing, dancing, and recitation. She also insists on locking up their devices, a stipulation only reluctantly agreed to. After all, they are in a dark woods on a winter's night, and when alert signals are heard or the lights flicker, a mild undercurrent of panic can be felt.

In trying to take the measure of our jittery, late-pandemic world, Watkins relies on familiar theatrical genres; Epiphany is both a comedy of manners and a country house mystery. (As a character delightedly notes, Morkan owns a cocktail cart, a staple of polished drawing room plays.) But, in this case, the mysteries are ontological. Watkins is wondering what has happened to us over the last couple of years, the long-term effects of forced isolation and creeping anxiety. That he does so with such a light touch, ensuring plenty of laughter, is one of the most remarkable things about Epiphany.

Morkan's friends have lost their knack for communal activity. "This is probably only the second group dinner I've been to in like, a long while," says Charlie (Francois Battiste). "It used to be we'd do this all the time, I think. Even though we didn't have to, we'd do it." The conversation is packed with moments of disquiet. Aran recalls disconnecting from the Internet after a friend's daughter was devasted by social media. "After that, I couldn't really look at my phone or scroll or whatever without, like, wincing, without my soul wincing, like a poison was entering through my eyes." The notes for Gabriel's undelivered speech suggest that we live in a "thought-tormented age: and sometimes I fear that this new generation, educated as it is, will lack those qualities of humanity, of hospitality, of kindly humor which belonged to an older day." Or, as Morkan says, "Well, I think it's all about why people are so lonely these days."

The reflexively cynical Taylor (David Ryan Smith) notes that we are leaving behind a ruined planet for future generations to clean up. But the twentysomething Loren (Colby Minifie) pleads for mercy: "We're really learning who we are in this great global experiment, and you can't expect that to be easy...it's going to take an immense amount of friction, and overlap, and discomfort, and soul-searching." Charlie muses, "It seems like we've all forgotten the miraculous reality that there is Something and not Nothing." But Sam (Omar Metwally), a psychiatrist, can't help feeling that "something might be Nothing at all...no meaning, no purpose, no reason...that's it's all just...random... Nothing."

Beyond such philosophical thoughts, Watkins has filled his play with subtly indicated religious underpinnings. Gabriel (the instrument of the Annunciation) fails to arrive, creating confusion and dejection. Ames (the great Jonathan Hadary, carrying the main course of roast goose, calls himself a "Suffering Servant," an allusion to a passage in Isaiah that adumbrates the birth of Christ. In accommodating the otherworldly Aran, a virtual stranger, Morkan may be unconsciously entertaining an angel, as instructed in Hebrews. Not for nothing does Ames quote lines ("We who must die demand a miracle") from "For the Time Being," by W. H. Auden, who regularly wrestled with spiritual matters in his work.

It's a rich banquet of ideas served up entertainingly by director Tyne Rafaeli with an eye for such details of pandemic etiquette as bumped-elbow greetings; she also expertly guides the action from its farcical opening to its deeply bemused conclusion. Her cast burrows into this metaphysical comedy with relish. Burke, with her permanent air of befuddlement, a voice suggesting a distressed teakettle, and a legion of semaphore arm movements, makes Morkan into a dithering oddball who nevertheless bullies her guests into all sorts of unwanted activities. Late in the play, when a pervasive melancholy sets in, she provides an ideal center of gravity; this is one her most notable performances. As Ames, Morkan's oldest friend, Hadary exudes wisdom and sorrow even as he figures in a pair of macabre sight gags involving a carving knife. Zilles brings a slightly unsettling radiance to the enigmatic Aran; "Who are you?" asks Ames probingly, a question that lingers, provocatively. Also fine are Heather Burns as a neurotic musician, alarming the others with highlights from a twenty-two-minute atonal piano concerto, and C. J. Wilson as the hardest drinker at the party.

The production gets Lincoln Center Theater's typical first-class treatment, with the untold depths of John Lee Beatty's haunted-mansion set being gorgeously lit by Isabella Byrd, creating a moody candlelit look inside while highlighting the moonlit snowstorm outdoors. Montana Levi Blanco's costumes are carefully drawn character studies; this is some his most careful, understated work. Daniel Kluger's sound design begins with an earthquake-like rumble and a burst of tense strings that sets the tone for the evening.

As it happens, Morkan is concealing a secret that, when revealed, stuns the others, laying bare how deeply she and the others have been affected by this time of separation. For all its conventional trappings, Epiphany is something entirely new, the first play to examine how much we have been shaped by the last two years, how these events have seeped into our souls, reshaping our expectations and identities. We've taken on plenty of damage; have we acquired some strengths? Watkins, creator of the Amazon Prime series Outer Range, has given us what may be one of the season's most distinctive works. --David Barbour

(29 June 2022)

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