nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
May 31, 2006
New Georges has put a lot of care into its new production of Dead City by Sheila Callaghan, now playing at the stunning 3LD Art & Technology Center. From a design standpoint, it's a technological marvel: Cameron Anderson's fluid set—a series of moving, versatile stone slabs—are a wonder; Josh Epstein's lights and Robert Kaplowitz's sound effects are highly evocative; and William Cusick executes some brilliant projections. On the acting front, the entire cast does fine work. And director Daniella Topol wraps the whole thing up with some stunning visuals and a clear sense of movement. What a shame, then, to report that all of that hard work is mostly for naught. Content-wise, playwright Callaghan drops the ball throughout: Dead City emerges as little more than an empty exercise in form.
The play is an ambitious "riff" on James Joyce's classic novel Ulysses, covering a day in the life of two tenuously connected New Yorkers: Samantha Blossom, a dissatisfied Upper East Sider, and Jewel Jupiter, a listless, drug-addicted misanthrope. Samantha's musician husband, Gabriel, is unfaithful, and she suffers from a nagging case of Empty Nest Syndrome (she has an unseen college age daughter, and is haunted by a dead infant son). Jewel is a former prodigy on the rocks: it's been years since her childhood literary promise dried up, and she's recently lost her teaching job. She spends her time getting drunk and high, and writing Patti Smith-inspired poetry. By coincidence, the two women's paths cross several times during a day which promises (or threatens) to bring sudden change at any moment to both of their lives.
In a recent interview, Callaghan claims to have written Dead City as a "personal reaction" to Ulysses. To which I can only ask: what exactly is she reacting to? The theme of dead children keeps coming up, in the guise of Samantha's long lost son and a fetus that Jewel has recently aborted, but neither is endowed with enough importance to make this a major subject in the play. The play's title refers to both a Patti Smith song and a nightclub where Samantha and Jewel run into each other, but one wouldn't know that without reading the press kit. Samantha's day-long odyssey across Manhattan exemplifies the soul-depleting malaise of modern urban life, but that statement has been made before (and better). And the unknowable nature of those who are closest to us, represented by Samantha and Gabriel's listless marriage, is a story that has been told time and time again. Callaghan brings nothing new to any of this—at least, not anything that New Yorkers haven't already seen or lived.
Callaghan's script does boast some good moments, though. She has a fondness for heightened, poetic language, and puts it to good use in a speech where Samantha falsely rhapsodizes about life at home ("…my daughter is a Barbie doll…my husband is a kite!...my friends are made of GAUZE…and sometimes I am not even here in this body, I'm a haze floating above it…"). And Gabriel gets a big speech at the end that expresses the most original thought in the play. Callaghan is obviously talented, a playwright with a lot of potential. But, she tries too hard with Dead City. It strives for importance with stream-of-consciousness non-sequiturs and fanciful, dream-like elements (like a flying taxi, and a character who confronts five different versions of herself), but none of it feels attached to any meaning or insight. Whatever the author is trying to say is obscured by a preference for style over substance.
This is too bad, because there is some good acting being squandered here. Elizabeth Norment is grounded and believable as Samantha. April Matthis burns with appropriate intensity as Jewel. Shannon Burkett, Rebecca Hart, Dan Illian, Alfredo Narciso, and Peter Rini all stand out in a variety of serious and comic roles. But, everyone is fighting an uphill battle. Their characters are all symbols, not people, which is ultimately what makes Dead City dramatically unsatisfying.
My hat is off to New Georges, though, for pulling off a production of this magnitude. Dead City is a rare instance of an indie theater company's capabilities exceeding its ambitions. I hope they continue to grow in this vein, and look forward to seeing what they offer up next.