By Tulis McCall

As “Epiphany” at Lincoln Center Theater draws to a close, one of the dinner guests, Taylor (David Ryan Smith) retrieves his phone (heretofore banished to a box with all the others) and says to his husband Sam (Omar Metwally) “Honey?  You’ll never believe it.  It’s midnight…. We’ve been here five hours.”  This sends a shock wave through the audience, because we all know we had been sitting for a mere 100 minutes.  But damn if it did not feel like five hours.  Minutes later the time is declared to be 1:30.  A nano-second after that the time is declared to be 2:30.  That’s what this play does.  It stops time.

Not in a good way.

First however, let’s get to the happy stuff.  This is a superb ensemble that moves like a single body of many parts.  Just about everyone is onstage all of the time.  Chatting at the downstairs door, coming up the steps, being relieved of their winter coats (Set by John Lee Beatty is stunning) milling about the dining area and finally seated for the Epiphany feast.  You can let your gaze fall anywhere because each of the actors has something up their sleeve.  Each character is mystery with two legs. Whether it is checking out another guest or looking for that elusive wineglass they could swear they just had in hand, or just listening.  They make listening so active you can almost hear their brains clicking as they follow along.

The not so good stuff.  Start with the story itself. This is an Epiphany meal because the host Morkan (Marylouise Burke) wants to have a celebration of almost anything due to the Pandemic (which is never mentioned).  Morkan lives alone in a grand and failing old house “on the banks of a large river just north of a big city.” Think Hudson, NY.  The time is “Now, for the most part.”  I never found out what that meant.

Anyway, Morkan settled on Epiphany because of a piece her nephew Gabriel wrote, and one thing led to another until she came up with this idea of a feast.  Gabriel, it turns out, is the center of everyone’s attention because he is a brilliant writer.  No one besides Morkan has met him, but everyone is on pins and needles waiting for his arrival.  Of course Gabriel never shows, but he sends an emissary Aran (Carmen Zilles) who arrives to the party with a soggy set of Gabriel’s notes that were to explain Epiphany but that no one can read.  It soon becomes clear that no one knows what Epiphany is (it is when the magi finally made it over to Bethlehem to behold you-know-who).  There is a lot of time spent surmising, which leads nowhere.  Of course they could look it up on their phones, but the phones have been banned.  I could have looked it up for them, but no one asked.  Alas.

A few other notes.

  • There are no appetizers and no chairs set out when the guest arrive.  Everyone stands or wanders with drinks in hand for a very, very long time.  Awkward all around.
  • The red wine looks like colored water.  Grape juice would have done better.
  • When strapped for things to do, Kelly (Heather Burns) is recruited to play a modern piano composition that is a loud crashing Nothing Burger.  Because…?
  • Sam brings a Galette for dessert which Morkan decides to cut up before dinner.  Somehow the carving knife does a back flip and ends up in the arm of Ames (Jonathan Hadary) one of the guests who is lying under the table (long story).
  • After the knife is pulled from the offending arm it is pronounced unusable for carving (apparently Morkan was not well stocked with soap and water or extra knives) so poor Charlie (Francois Battiste) offers to rip the goose apart with two forks.  I have never seen anyone do this before.  It was not a pretty sight.
  • A few minutes into the meal all the mobile phones start playing alarms from inside their Time-Out Box.  When this does not stop, Morkan picks the box up and gives it a few mighty shakes until the phones stop.  Everyone returns to the meal, and we never find out what this was or why it is in the story.

As I said, this ensemble gives it their best shot and never flags for a second.  Still, it is not enough to make sense of this story.  Brian Watkins writing is filled with gigantic gaps that the actors do their best to close.  The direction by Tyne Rafaeli does little to correct this situation. These actors are flung from pillar to post without so much as a guide rope to reel them in.  These actors deserve battle pay.

Finally, in reading other reviews I found that this play was intimately connected to a short story, “The Dead” by James Joyce.  The suggestion being that if I read that story I would have a better idea of what was intended here. Sorry – a play that comes with preparation homework is not my cuppa.  If I cannot follow the story on its own, what is the point in watching it?  What is the point indeed?

Epiphany by Brian Watkins, Directed by Tyne Rafaeli

WITH Francois Battiste, Marylouise Burke, Heather Burns, Jonathan Hadary, Omar Metwally, Colby Minifie, David Ryan Smith, C.J. Wilson, and Carmen Zilles.

Sets by John Lee Beatty, costumes by Montana Levi Blanco, lighting by Isabella Byrd, original music and sound by Daniel Kluger.

Lincoln Center Theater through July 24.  TICKETS