Quite besides the actors, John Lee Beatty’s set and Isabella Byrd’s lighting are the stars of Epiphany, a play set in “a very old house, on the banks of a large river, just north of a big city.” As the audience is watching Brian Watkins’ play at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater (opening tonight, to July 24), the assumption is we are somewhere outside somewhere like Hudson, or another comfortably-off upstate New York enclave.
Whatever, the setting and lighting are sumptuous and inviting: big windows, trinkets, candles, handsome tables, chunky staircase. Snow is gently falling outside the windows, the lights flicker on and off. As the play begins, with no characters visible, curtains wispily move by unseen wind, and a haunting is implied. And yes, this is a show of ghosts, as well as a show featuring a very living and fun group of guests assembled by host Morkan (Marylouise Burke).
It is not a typical dinner party, it turns out. Burke, as Morkan, has sent the guests a list of instructions, which provide much hilarity as no one seems to have read or received her diktats—this is particularly, excruciatingly obvious when a song is to be sung and Kelly (Heather Burns) looks desperately to thin air to summon up the words or tune. Burke is the brilliant, eccentrically whimsical anchor-host for the whole night, with Watkins layering her words, and the words of her guests, over one another.
Who is speaking, who is responding, what is being said, becomes a polyphonic mash-up—fun to begin with and masterfully done by the actor, but also, after a while of repetitious hubbub, a little exhausting. It is not a dinner party from hell, but it is an all-too plausible dinner party of inoffensive, mildly insufferable people trying to get words in edgeways and drinks down throats.
Loren (Colby Minifie), a vegan who doesn’t do gluten now faced with a goose-based meal full of dietary danger, has been charged with opening doors to guests, with a complicated announcement system to keep Morkan abreast of who is ringing the bell. Shouts and greetings clash, as the stage is variously empty and a higgledy-piggledy arena of rushed greetings, coats being tossed off, and drinks poured. Have anything you like, says Morkan, when really only gin and wine seem to be in ready supply.
We watch the jockeying for social position, conversations bloom and die, glasses of wine get poured, and the general wall of blah as the group tries to orient itself in this mysterious evening. Your heart lurches as Morkan launches herself up and down the stairs and into the kitchen in a whirl of host duties and determined party plotting. Keep her upright, you think, as she rushes hither and thither.
In comes Freddy (C.J. Wilson), who can’t seem to find his place, but commands our attention anyway. Kelly and Charlie (Francois Battiste), and Sam (Omar Metwally—yes Affair fans, hot Dr. Vik lives, now with beard, and a psychiatrist!) and Taylor (David Ryan Smith) provide couple frolics and barbs, and Ames (Jonathan Hadary) a touch of smooth urbanity.
Amidst the laughter and chit-chat, Morkan says the party is being held to mark Epiphany, that post-Christmas festival typically held on the first Sunday after January 1. This feast has its own ghost, Gabriel, who is much-anticipated—not just his presence, but also a speech about Epiphany to the assembled he is due to deliver. But he is not present, and another mystery is about where Morkan’s sister Julia is.
The play deepens, or at least its title swims more meaningfully into view, over confusion and disagreement about what the festival of Epiphany means, what the word itself means, and whether the three Maji who are central to the Bible story are the same as the three Wise Men. And, as Morkan says, does anyone mark it? “How does a holiday die?” Tonight, she is determined to resurrect it and its significance, even if no one is clear how and why.
A stranger connected to Gabriel, Aran (Carmen Zilles), arrives, swathed in the kind of robes that seem distinctly Maji-like, speaking the kind of holistic and healing wisdom a Maji just might be expected to speak. The party’s symbolic and metaphorical totems become more real and pronounced as she addresses her fellow guests. Something about her, not just her dress, is otherworldly. “We’ve reduced all of existence into what can be quantified or categorized or monetized and look what’s happened,” she says to her fellow guests. “Our imaginations have atrophied... We’ve become uninterested in the complexities of humanity, grouping people and ideas by their exterior appearances as opposed to their inner depth.”
Dinner is served (and Morkan’s recitation of what is on the table is as poetically delicious as physically so). From this moment—even as poor Ames suffers the kind of horrific accidental injury that elicits a communal howl from the audience—the play takes a hard turn from amiable, social excruciation-comedy to a deeper meditation on social mores, with Loren delivering a passionate speech for the need for wider cultural change. Other characters steer the conversation around themes of mortality, the passing of time, and creativity. Then grief shimmers into painful view.
These may be necessary and inevitable hard turns to drill into the play’s title, but the earlier fun and chatter seem distant as the play’s seriousness settles like the cloak of night outside. Epiphany’s ghosts become real, painfully so. The party becomes a séance, a summoning, a farewell, and a reassertion of life. There is, as you might expect, in a play called Epiphany, more than one epiphany this Epiphany, and—just as at the beginning of the play when the evening’s ghosts were first announced—Beatty’s set design and Byrd’s lighting reassert themselves as the evening’s silent stars.