Performing Arts

Theater Review: ‘Epiphany’: A Flicker in the Darkness

BY Judd Hollander TIMEJuly 10, 2022 PRINT

NEW YORK—At one time or another, most of us  have found ourselves at a social gathering where we wish we could be anywhere else. Playwright Brian Watkins uses this idea as the starting point for his play “Epiphany.” This comedic drama has its New York premiere off-Broadway at Lincoln Center.

The story takes place in a stately old house on a snowy evening in mid-January. The occasion is a dinner party to celebrate Epiphany, a religious holiday honoring the Three Kings’ visit to the Child Jesus.

The gathering is the brainchild of the hostess Morkan (Marylouise Burke), who lives in the house with her sister. Morkan learned about the holiday’s history from multiple sources and through a bit of surfing on the web.

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The company of “Epiphany.” (Jeremy Daniel)

As a result, she has meticulously planned out the evening’s events, which include singing, dancing, and a poetry reading. This agenda, as well as detailed information on the holiday itself, was included in the various electronic attachments she sent to each person invited, attachments none of the guests seem to have read, or perhaps they never received them in the first place, for, as the 60-something Morkan admits, her memory is not as sharp as it used to be.

While Morkan retains a general idea of what is supposed to happen, her fail-safe backup for the evening is her nephew Gabriel, a writer of some renown and the de facto guest of honor. Things turn awkward when he fails to appear and his partner Aran (Carmen Zilles) shows up in his stead. Aran brings a speech Gabriel had written which was supposed to explain everything about the holiday.

The speech is accidentally destroyed before being read aloud and the guests find themselves in an uncomfortable situation. None of them want to disappoint Morkan, who has made clear just how important this night is to her. So, with no real guideline on how to proceed, everyone does their best to muddle through.

This could result in an evening filled with cringeworthy moments, as when one of the guests (Heather Burns) tries to lead the others in a song even though she has no idea of the lyrics, and Morkan urges her on, feeding her lines drip by drip.

The entire experience quickly morphs into a what could be considered a social experiment. The various guests, many of whom do not know each other, open up as they become more comfortable in their surroundings. Topics explored include life, loneliness, time, tradition, progress, entitlement, food, truth, compulsion, and whether people have the ability to change.

There is also a feeling of nostalgia throughout, with one person remarking how very few people throw such elaborate dinner parties anymore.

The playwright also takes aim at the influence hand-held communication devices have on our lives. The guests go into a sort of withdrawal when Morkan locks up everyone’s cell phone so they can relate to each another on a more personal level. Morkan explains how technology and her continual use of the Internet has ruined her concentration when it comes to trying to read an actual book.

As with most gatherings, one gets to know some people better than others, such as Kelly (Burns), who is obviously an alcoholic, even though she never admits it. Her talk gets louder as time goes on and the drinks continues to flow. Also interesting is the changing social dynamic Morkan’s friend Freddy (C.J. Wilson) faces in regard to the other guests when he leaves the room for a moment; Morkan uses that time to inform everyone of his drinking problem.

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(L–R) Jonathan Hadary, C.J. Wilson, Heather Burns, Marylouise Burke, and Omar Metwally in “Epiphany.” (Jeremy Daniel)

Most telling of all is the play’s examination of the concept of time and how it has been spent. This premise is explored when Sam (Omar Metwally), a psychiatrist, presents a series of questions he has developed, including one which deals with the amount of time one has left to live. This is also something Morkan feels strongly about, as she has found herself growing more and more isolated over the years. It’s becoming clear she now desperately needs to be around other people, because she realizes her own lifespan may be coming to an end.

While the play does meander at points, the situation Watkins has created more than holds the audience’s interest. Tyne Rafaeli’s direction is fine, combining elements both hopeful and wistful, along with a constant feeling that something unexpected could happen.

The lighting by Isabella Byrd and original music and sound by Daniel Kluger are well done. As for the very impressive set by John Lee Beatty, one hopes it will be remembered during the next award season.

The entire cast is quite good. Burke is the clear standout as someone who wants things to happen the way she envisioned. Ironically, she becomes so involved in what unfolds, she ends up sharing far more of herself than she ever expected.

A story about the importance of interacting with others before time runs out, “Epiphany” is a celebration well worth attending.

‘Epiphany’
Lincoln Center Theater at The Mitzi E. Newhouse
150 W. 56th St.
Tickets: 212-239-6200, Telecharge.com, or LCT.org
Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes (no intermission)
Closes: July 24

Judd Hollander is a reviewer for stagebuzz.com and a member of the Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle.
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