On Sundays Gothamist runs opinion pieces relevant to life in New York and reviews of recent books and performances. The judgments expressed below are entirely those of the author.
With a piece of art that’s been inspired by another piece of art that was inspired by yet another, you can be excused for wondering if those degrees of separation will mean a product that’s not inspired at all. Fortunately this is not the case with New Georges’ latest production, Sheila Callaghan’s Dead City, which is a sort of twenty-first century Manhattan take on that monument of twentieth-century literature, James Joyce’s Ulysses. Joyce would have gone to town with the bizarre sounds and phrases from our internet-soaked, fast-food-stuffed, fifteen-minutes-of-fame world, as the many remarkable scenes in this play show it’s possible to do. There are some storyline parallels with Ulysses, but more important in the inspiration department is the way Callaghan picks up on and makes effective new use of the combination of narrative sincerity and silliness, wonder and cynicism, panorama and detail, that put Ulysses in a class of its own. Dead City is very different, of course, but the shared underlying engagement with language and the flow of modern life makes it a similarly vibrant and frequently arresting creation.
Our Leopold Bloom is Samantha Blossom, a forty-ish woman who over the course of a long day buzzing about Manhattan is confronted by an array of tough questions and situations; Elizabeth Norment fills the role with a subtle combination of grace and piquancy. Samantha, an internet business consultant, is married to a jazz singer who’s increasingly famous and correspondingly increasingly distant (Peter Rini plays the rogue with impressive sensitivity). Over the course of the day, as she goes from meeting with the editor of an internet magazine (wickedly caricatured by Rebecca Hart) to a funeral to a birth to a rendezvous with a guy she met online who she thinks loves French poetry, Samantha keeps running into Jewel Jupiter, a troubled young poet who is the age Samantha’s son would be if he hadn’t died when he was just a few days old. Jewel resists Samantha’s friendly overtures, but eventually she gives in, because – as you readily believe from April Matthis’ convincing performance – she has few other options in her increasingly dead-end life. This taxing daylong journey doesn’t exactly give Samantha the answers to the questions she has about her life’s meaning or what she should be doing differently, whether she’s going in the right direction, and more than once those questions fall off the horizon entirely, but it does reveal her and her world to us so that we feel invested in the outcome of that journey – understanding of her trepidation about the future but eager for her to keep going and end up well.
Joyce recreated his Dublin’s streets with nothing more than pen and paper to take dictation from what he took in with his remarkable ear for language, so one might say that Callaghan has it easy since she gets to use actors and a set and sound system and all, but one could also argue that today’s Manhattan is a lot busier, less readily graspable place than early 1900’s Dublin. And it’s not exactly easy to put Manhattan on stage in the first place, especially when the stage isn’t that large and you don’t have a big cast. New Georges' cast more than make do with what they have, though, by putting the actors in multiple roles (only Samantha and Jewel play a single character; Shannon Burkett, in particular, does an amazing job not only rapidly changing costumes but also taking on the personality of a flighty Upper-East-Sider, a dazed/drugged young woman, and a self-important talent manager within the space of a few minutes) and by making creative use of moveable walls and a video projection that can swiftly conjure up a bustling street or a club’s interior (Cameron Anderson did the set, William Cusick the videography), so that Samantha’s world – ours – springs to dynamic, full-blooded life. At times the compression – of the cast, of the time frame – entails a bit too much stereotyping and glossing over, but for the most part the play’s frantic pace feels just right. It is Manhattan, after all.
You’ll notice that I haven’t said much about the parallels with Ulysses, but again, Dead City isn’t supposed to be a slavish “update” of the book, for one thing, and for another even if you haven’t read it you can still readily enjoy the play on its own terms. In a way, it’s a celebration of the hectic odysseys we all take through Manhattan most days, and even if you think you know your own all too well, there’s still something magical about seeing it on a stage before you, and about vicariously experiencing the struggles and small triumphs of some of the usually anonymous people you always see flooding by you as you forge ahead.
3LD Art & Technology Center // 80 Greenwich St. // Through June 24, tickets and schedule at Smarttix