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Playwright Brian Watkins and director Tyne Rafaeli on their haunting new drama inspired by James Joyce's The Dead
In Brian Watkins' eerie new play Epiphany, a houseful of party guests are on pins and needles waiting for the final attendee to show up—after all, he's the one who has promised to explain the reason for the gathering. Now running at Lincoln Center Theater's Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, the production is also late to arrive, delayed by two years due to COVID-19. For director Tyne Rafaeli, the wait has only sharpened the drama's critique of our disconnected postmodern world. "Even in a pre-pandemic environment, the play's conversations about our need to gather and our need for ritual felt so deeply pertinent," Rafaeli says. "Brian was pointing to things in how we were living that then became so acute and undeniable during the pandemic."
Set in a grand old house outside of a large unnamed city, Epiphany takes place over the course of one snowy night as the grandmotherly Morkan (NYC stage legend Marylouise Burke) welcomes affectionate but bewildered friends and family to a get-together that she hopes will be the start of a new (or is that old?) annual tradition. She insists that they give up their cell phones for the evening and has prepared an absurdly large, old-fashioned dinner. But where in the world is her nephew, Gabriel, the event's cohost?
This portrait of our distracted present is actually inspired by a text from the past—written on the eve of World War I, another moment of tremendous social upheaval and cultural anxiety. Epiphany is a reworking of James Joyce's 1914 literary masterpiece "The Dead." "It's known as the greatest short story ever written for a reason," says Watkins. "There's something remarkably haunting about the last five pages… Joyce was so concerned with mortality and our yearnings for transcendence." "The Dead" has been reimagined for the stage and screen multiple times, including a 1999 musical version starring Christopher Walken that transferred to Broadway for a brief engagement, and Irish Repertory Theatre's immersive mounting that used to run during the winter holidays. With Epiphany, Watkins does something far more complex than dramatize the source material. He transposes it to the present, removes key characters, transforms others and adds new ones to the mix. It's equal parts adaptation and sequel.
Although Watkins has jettisoned the Dublin setting of Joyce's work, it was the union of locale and story that initially intrigued him. "I was actually in Dublin, and I was listening to the story on a loop," he says. "Then I came back to New York, and 'The Dead' was sort of haunting my mind." He quickly put his obsession to practical use, penning a play that, like Joyce's story, explores the concept of epiphany (though, like many Americans, the dramatist was initially unfamiliar with the story's Catholic context). "At the time I was a playwriting fellow at Juilliard," Watkins says. "I had a play due, and that became Epiphany."
Watkins had been in Ireland to work with Druid, the theatre company responsible for bringing the early plays of Martin McDonagh to Broadway, and the troupe ended up mounting Epiphany's world premiere in 2019. "It was really interesting to do this play in Ireland, to do it before the pandemic, and to now bring it home to Lincoln Center, where I actually wrote the first draft," Watkins says. For director Rafaeli, who previously helmed the refugee drama Power Strip for Lincoln Center Theater, getting Epiphany on its feet at last also marks a homecoming. "We're in this really interesting relationship with the play," she says. "We were meant to do it in 2020, and without changing a word on the page, the piece has just become a whole new thing for us."
Good things come to those who wait, however painful the reason for the holdup. That certainly seems to have been the case for Watkins: He used the pandemic pause to write and produce the series Outer Range, a sci-fi Western drama starring Josh Brolin that's currently streaming on Amazon Prime. "I really like to have the triangle of film, TV and theatre happening all at once at different stages," he says. "One form really sharpens another, or at least can give me perspective that can be useful. I think there's actually a lot in Outer Range that is present in Epiphany in different ways," including Watkins' signature brand of "existential dread and absurdist humor." For now, he's enjoying being back in the theatre. "There's nothing like live performance," he says. "The fact that it's written in water makes it sort of beautiful and sacred"—just like a circle of friends gathering on a stormy winter's night.
Regina Robbins is a writer, director, native New Yorker and Jeopardy! champion. She has worked with several NYC-based theatre companies and is currently a Core Company Member with Everyday Inferno Theatre.
Top image: Marylouise Burke, Omar Metwally and David Ryan Smith in Epiphany at Lincoln Center Theater. Photo by Jeremy Daniel.