A complex middle-aged protagonist, deadened by experiences and compromises, engages in an eventful day of episodic wandering in a major city. Sheila Callaghan’s Dead City, a modern riff on James Joyce’s “Ulysses” is a witty piece that succeeds as a satirical adventure and a moving character study.
For you Ulysses fans, the story’s main character is now Samantha Blossom (not Leo Bloom), whose path keeps crossing that of Jewel Jupiter (not Stephen Dedalus) as she travels about Manhattan (not Dublin). While Callaghan includes several sly references to the classic novel, the play stands on its own. (Although I must confess I had flashes to Martin Scorsese’s similarly themed film “After Hours”, a comparison meant as high praise for the play.)
Samantha (Wyckham Avery) is a freelance internet consultant who opens the mail one morning to find a scented note to her metrosexual musician husband Gabriel (Tim Getman), which makes her think he is having an affair. Stunned by the fact and still haunted by past events (such as the death of her newborn second child years earlier), she heads out for a series of personal and business appointments. A pregnant friend Gloria (Valerie Fenton) points out that death and the internet are both opiates, and Samantha begins the day as a woman deadened to the world.
Over the next 24 hours, Samantha is wakened by her recurring contacts with the punk rock poet Jewel (Rachel Beauregard) at a number of locales, inspired by actual Manhattan settings. Beauregard gives a charismatic and layered performance as the complex Jewel, a tortured young artist, fixated by her in-progress spec piece about how Patti Smith could channel other artists while performing on stage. [Note: The title Dead City refers to a Patti Smith song, a cemetery, and a bar visited by the characters, as well as having other symbolic meaning(s).]
Avery’s performance is more vague and less compelling. She does not fully convey the character’s inner life, but fortunately the story uses other devices to reveal Samantha’s internal conflicts – occasional inner monologues, an infrequent narrator (Grady Weatherford), and even thoughts projected to a screen onstage. Thus Callaghan mixes the real world with the surreal in a manner that keeps the character and the audience off-balance in an interesting fashion. It’s the kind of play where you are not overly surprised when a dead character speaks.
Samantha and Jewel interact with a variety of people, played by the other five talented cast members. Along with Fenton, Lee Matthews particularly shines while playing characters such as the fabulous netzine editor Beatrice and Jewel’s abrasive roommate Nora.
Manhattan itself is almost another character in the play. By the time Samantha and Jewel wind up at midnight at a dance club in the meat packing district, the audience has had a quick-cutting tour of numerous city settings. As one character describes it, these adventures help deconstruct Samantha’s protected world of illusion.
Along with the strong ensemble, the production team presents Callaghan’s vision with a black and white cityscape backdrop effectively conjures up Manhattan yet stays consistent with the abstract elements of the play. Working with minimal sets and props, the production efficiently evokes the string of different settings. Director Jenny McConnell Frederick keeps the energy up and effectively handles the transitions in setting and mood.
As entertaining as the play is, it has occasional bumps. Not every surreal touch works (the flying cab never takes off) and a long monologue by Gabriel seems tacked on, despite a fine and touching rendition by Getman.
Still, Sheila Callaghan is one of the brightest young playwrights on the American scene (her entertaining Fever/Dream was produced earlier this summer at Woolly Mammoth*, although I consider Dead City a superior work). The wit and lyrical language in this play are fascinating.
In Dead City, the lead character is awakened to the possibility of rediscovering and reclaiming the best parts of herself. While the plot may be borrowed, Callaghan’s work is totally original and Rorschach Theatre’s invigorating production gives a fine rendition of a work from a fresh theatrical voice.
*[ and We Are Not These Hands and Crumble (Lay Me Down Justin Timberlake were both produced by Catalyst Theater Company.]
By Sheila Callaghan
Directed by Jenny McConnell Frederick
Produced by Rorschach Theatre at the Devine Theatre,
Davis Performing Arts Center at Georgetown University
Reviewed by Steven McKnight