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Editorial Review

'Dead City': Not Much Reason to Re-Joyce

By Celia Wren
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, July 22, 2009

You cannot accuse the daring playwright Sheila Callaghan of scorning literary tradition. Last month, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company premiered "Fever/Dream," her updating of a seminal Spanish golden age drama. Now Rorschach Theatre is mounting another Callaghan work with a highfalutin pedigree: "Dead City," a spin on James Joyce's "Ulysses," is so packed with crafty parallels to that 1922 novel that it might prompt a convention of English professors to stand up and cheer. But as a free-standing piece of theatre, "Dead City" is only fitfully compelling, partly because Joyce's episodic plotline, itself a gloss on "The Odyssey," feels too meandering when translated to the stage.

That's not to say that the Rorschach production, fluidly directed by Jenny McConnell Frederick, lacks affecting elements, from Rachel Beauregard's expressive performance as Jewel, a now-rapt, now-bleary-eyed punk poet, to scenic designer Eric Grims's panorama of nighttime skyscrapers.

The skyscrapers -- whose bright windows, perhaps in tribute to the play's belletristic gamesmanship, resemble crossword-puzzle boxes -- evoke New York, where "Dead City" is set. "Ulysses," you may recall, chronicled the wanderings of two men, a middle-aged advertising agent and a young intellectual, around Dublin over the course of a day (June 16, 1904). Switching the protagonists' genders, and advancing the time frame by a century, Callaghan introduces Samantha Blossom (Wyckham Avery), an Internet marketing consultant trying to distract herself from the infidelity of her jazz-singer husband Gabriel (Tim Getman). After various activities (attending a funeral, meeting with a Web site editor, etc.), Samantha runs into the Rimbaud- and Patti Smith-obsessed Jewel, who escorts the older woman to a sleazy nightclub and becomes her friend.

Flaring up periodically are the deliciously zany humor and surreal aesthetic that have marked other Callaghan scripts; her plays include "We Are Not These Hands" and "Crumble (Lay Me Down Justin Timberlake)," both seen at D.C.'s Catalyst Theater Company. When a cyber-flirtation between Samantha and a Young Man (the dynamic Danny Gavigan) ends in physical consummation, the lascivious stretching and coiling of chewed gum stands in for sex. And when Samantha visits a spa, the attendants (Lee Matthews and Grady Weatherford) spin her like a top and voice her thoughts, one of several sequences that approximate Joyce's stream-of-consciousness techniques and word-besottedness. Andrew R. Cissna's lighting helps signal when naturalism cedes to dream logic.

Faced with the tricky task of depicting a stolid yet ill-at-ease introvert, Avery comes across as bland. But Beauregard's mop-haired Jewel, suitably grungy in high-top sneakers and jeans with suspenders (Frank Labovitz designed the costumes), manages to radiate both rebellion and vulnerability, adding poignancy to her rapport with Samantha. Getman cinches the role of Gabriel, who's vain but also -- in his final speech (corresponding to the famous Molly Bloom monologue in "Ulysses") -- endearing. One of several actors who shoulder multiple small roles, Weatherford is delightful as a depressed carpenter, a flaky cab driver and an eerily omniscient NPR host.

Still, with a through line that's more concept than plot, "Dead City" gathers little steam. In "Ulysses," stylistic pyrotechnics and 600-plus pages of moment-by-moment detail create their own momentum. Callaghan can hardly do the same in a 100-minute play. She's brilliant, but not superhuman.

Dead City, by Sheila Callaghan. Directed by Jenny McConnell Frederick; sound design, Matthew Frederick; properties, Becca Dieffenbach; choreography, Melissa-Leigh Bustamante. With Valerie Fenton. About 100 minutes.