By Brian Scott Lipton . . .

Dinners and dinner parties, the automatic catalyst for awkward, revealing and often life-changing interactions, have fascinated such writers as Thornton Wilder, A.R. Gurney, and especially James Joyce. Now, we can add Brian Watkins to the list. His haunting new play Epiphany, getting its New York premiere at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi Newhouse Theatre under Tyne Rafaeli’s assured direction, borrows elements (and names) from Joyce’s The Dead, while providing a contemporary spin on this age-old formula.

Here, a group of barely acquainted folks brave a dangerous winter storm to attend a dinner party being thrown by their mutual friend, Morkan, an eccentric, sweet-natured elderly woman (portrayed brilliantly by Marylouise Burke, once again displaying her flair for blending the overtly comic and quietly tragic). She lives in a sumptuous mansion (magnificently designed by John Lee Beatty and lit by Isabella Byrd), where the lights frequently threaten to go out and the chance of falling down the stairs seems forever imminent, making us wonder if the play will turn out to be a Gothic horror tale. Which it kind of is, in its own way.

The company of Epiphany

These guests have come, ostensibly, for two reasons: to celebrate the holiday of Epiphany and to hear the thoughts of Morkan’s nephew Gabriel, a celebrated intellectual who appears to have the star power—at least in these circles—of Beyonce or Brad Pitt. But problems quickly arise! 

First, no one seems to know what Epiphany is, having ignored the many attachments of Morkan’s original e-mail. (For the record, in most cultures, it is celebrated on January 6 and involves the Three Wise Men determining Jesus was the Son of God.) Moreover, Morkan herself has forgotten the details of both the holiday and her plans, and she refuses to budge on her policy of letting her guests take their cellphones out of a closed box in order to Google the answer. (Indeed, our reliance on technology is just one of the many potent themes Watkins explores during the two-hour, intermission-less show.)

Jonathan Hadary, C.J. Wilson, Heather Burns, Marylouise Burke and Omar Metwally

Secondly, Gabriel fails to appear—supposedly due to having fallen into a massive depression according to his partner, the serene, almost otherworldly Aran (a stunning Carmen Zilles). Yes, he did send his speech with her, but after Aran has fallen in the snow on her arrival, it is virtually unreadable. 

As a result, the partygoers are left to their own devices. The pretentious Kelly (a pitch-perfect Heather Burns) plays part of a dreadful piano piece and squabbles with her partner, Charlie, a smug lawyer (well played by Francois Battiste); smug psychiatrist Sam (an excellent Omar Metwally) engages in a too-personal evaluation of Aran’s inner beliefs; and Morkan’s old friend Ames (the superb Jonathan Hadary) presses his hostess on the absence of her sister Julia. When that explanation finally arrives, it not only shifts the tone of the play but brings out Watkins’ deeper message.

The company of Epiphany

Finally, we realize that Morkan has gone to all this trouble to celebrate life and friendship—even via a holiday she has no religious stake in—and that her guests, self-centered as they may be, are desperately longing for community and connection, especially after having weathered the isolation of Covid. (It’s a great touch, but if the play is set on January 6, 2021 or even 2022, how come no one is discussing the attack on the U.S. Capitol?) 

Indeed, they talk about anything and everything—from empiricism to the benefits of a Japanese toilet—because they’re still afraid to interact physically (their reaction to Morkan’s suggestion they dance is eye-opening). Furthermore, their inane chit-chat provides a kind of armor that, like Ames’ arm or Aran’s psyche, can be too easily pierced. Just how fragile we are is perhaps the play’s biggest epiphany.

Epiphany. Through July 24 at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater in Lincoln Center (150 West 65th Street, between Ninth and Tenth Avenues).  

Photos: Jeremy Daniel