theater review

Strangers at My Table: Domestic Drama in Epiphany and Chains

From Epiphany, at Lincoln Center. Photo: Jeremy Daniel

Depending on the spurious narratological expert that you read, there are only seven basic plots, or twenty, or — and I like this option best — two. For some reason, that last number seems right to me: As John Gardner (may never have actually) said, every story can be reduced to either “someone goes on a journey” or “a stranger comes to town.” (If you are thinking of a counterexample right now, you are surely reducing wrong.) Because we live in a bourgeois age, the latter option often turns into “a stranger comes to dinner,” at which point he puts the household into an uproar. Of course, the typical symbolic referent for the Stranger is Death or Change or God — those pesky, perennial, uninvited guests.

The dinner party in the underdeveloped Epiphany now at Lincoln Center Theater has plenty of invited guests and a notable absence at its heart. Brian Watkins has written a loose, modern-day homage to James Joyce’s The Dead, using  its general set-up (a woman has a party and invites her great-nephew, as well as those who wish to speak with him) and its atmospheric reliance on both an Irish ballad and snow. In Epiphany, the great-aunt is Morkan (Mary-Louise Burke), the scatty owner of a magnificent mansion somewhere in the woods, and the great-nephew is a no-show. Instead of coming, he has sent along his new girlfriend, Aran (there’s the stranger!), to meet an assortment of city folk who have come in hopes of seeing the Great Man.

Morkan wants to celebrate Epiphany, though she can’t remember the exact meaning of the feast, nor is she honest enough to explain her attachment to the abstract concept. She has, though, bombarded her guests with (unread) emails about games and dances and songs, all of which they should have memorized before arriving. The bulk of the play consists of farcical attempts to fool or placate or please her: Her old friend Ames (Jonathan Hadary) winds up with a knife in his arm after one mangled surprise; a hyperactive pianist, Kelly (Heather Burns), tries to improvise her way through an Epiphany song and fails completely.

Kelly is an odd element in the show — the object of mean comedy, about both her person and her music that is ha ha so modern that it sounds like an actor banging on a keyboard. There are other easy jokes about This Here Newfangled Reality, including darts thrown at veganism and psychiatry (“far from an established science,” says David Ryan Smith, playing the psychiatrist’s husband). The comedy, even when goosed by director Tyne Rafaeli, is already a little wan, and it’s further muffled by the setting, John Lee Beatty’s too-gorgeous, too-astonishing interior, which stretches up to cathedral heights and opens onto an incredible blizzard landscape. Theoretically we do not know why Morkan dodges every question about her missing sister, but the snow falls and falls outside, and the more we remember our Joyce (“he heard the snow falling faintly…upon all the living and the dead”) the less we wonder.

The cast is full of superb performers, starting with Hadary and Burke and including an underused Francois Battiste as Kelly’s husband, but the conversations Watkins writes for them point at profundity while rarely attaining it. Once the characters stop larking about and settle down to dinner, they all agree that there’s a certain angst, a certain loneliness, in modern life; they agree that Morkan’s celebration is valuable, since it creates an opportunity to gather. The old ways—carefully undefined—are best, don’t you think? And then Carmen Zilles, playing the mysterious Aran, sings a touching Irish ballad. The best, most evocative lines of the play happen here, right at the close. Most of the guests leave, and Ames is lost in reverie. “So who are you?” he says, as Aran nods at him, angelically, from a little glow. He has spotted her as something Other, a quiet ending to an infuriatingly noisy play. Many plays have strong beginnings and flub the ending, but Watkins here seems to have worked backwards. He has a gorgeous image in mind, and he knows who his Stranger should be. It’s the dinner part he hasn’t quite worked out yet, nor the tidings that she brings.

In the early-20th-century drama Chains, the dinner is at the house of Lily (Laakan McHardy) and Charlie Wilson (Jeremy Beck), a cramped place with a back garden and room for a boarder. The stranger at their table is that boarder (Peterson Townsend), a man they thought they knew who reveals himself as a surprising, ungovernable spirit: He tells them that he plans to leave, that very Monday, to seek his fortune in Australia. The whiff of vicarious adventure torments Charlie, who has a long stretch of meaningless work ahead of him, but even after he tells his friends and family, no one other than his lovely sister-in-law, Maggie Massey (Olivia Gilliatt), seems to smell it too. In a more predictable, baser play, these two would be romantic objects for each other, but Baker brushes that aside with increasing impatience as the play unfolds. Wanting freedom and challenge and change aren’t just part of a love-fantasy, she writes. They are our birthright.

Elizabeth Baker’s play was the hit of the 1909 season in London. Nobody had written a Shavian drama about the clerking classes before; certainly nobody expected one from a working woman, a “young girl,” according to the publicity. (Thanks to dramaturg Maya Cantu’s program note, I know she was 32.) There had certainly been plays that exposed the inequities of class, of labor, of opportunity, and caste, but Baker’s Chains revealed to her audiences that what seemed like security—steady white-collar jobs—were traps for the human soul. In reviving Chains in 2022, when we are either in the Great Resignation or at the precipice of a new recession, the Mint Theater has again discovered a treasure from the literary past (this one has delicacy and a keen sidelong emotionality), and reminded us of how long the working world has ground us beneath its heel.

Jenn Thompson presides over a crisply performed and elegantly designed production, which includes a set change so clever that designer John McDermott should have come out for a round of applause. The shift from the Wilsons’ lower-middle-class parlor to the just-so-slightly-richer Masseys’ is structurally cunning (I loved the fireplace that snuck onstage), but more importantly, it’s telling. Why does the blue of one room seem less opulent than the red of the other? Deep in our own nasty lizard brains, we recognize century-old markers of wealth and bend towards them. Comrades, we have so much inward struggle still to do! There is a certain repetitiveness to Chains, and the evening does not fly by, but I came to rather enjoy that sense of effortful progress. Charley is trying to keep from drowning, horrified at the way he might hurt his loved ones but fighting for breath all the same. It seems appropriate that we should feel a little stifled along with him: Vicarious adventure is all very well, but vicarious suffering teaches lessons too.

Epiphany is at Lincoln Center Theater through July 24.
Chains is at Theater Row through July 23.

Strangers at My Table: Domestic Drama in Epiphany and Chains