It sounds like a lost evening: a play called “Dead City” that’s James Joyce’s “Ulysses” with a female computer consultant taking the tour through present-day Manhattan — from an unknown playwright and an org that (in its own words) “produces feisty, imaginative, highly theatrical new works by women in downtown venues.” But Sheila Callaghan surprises with an understandably sprawling but always interesting narrative.
Samantha Blossom (Elizabeth Norment) has husband problems (he’s a jazz singer), empty-nest syndrome (her Barbie-doll daughter is off at Vassar) and a hidden torment. This last is a lost son who would be 22 but died shortly after birth. (Leopold Bloom has a son who would be 11 but lived only 11 days.) Mr. Bloom, or rather Ms. Blossom, fixates on a 22-year-old poet genius, Jewel Jupiter, who takes her on a midnight tour of Nighttown (the meat-packing district) on June 16, 2004, 100 years to the day after Joyce’s jaunt through Dublin.
Parallels to Leopold and Molly are only approximate; the script says it’s “very loosely based on Joyce’s ‘Ulysses,’ ” but we get the point.
What could have been theatrical disaster turns out to be an adventurous riff on the tale, with an especially well-rounded and human character at play’s center.
An hour or so in, Callaghan places her heroine in a latenight tryst along the docks of the Hudson in a gripping scene reminiscent of “Torch Song Trilogy.” Dangerous, but the playwright pulls it off (in league with Norment and director Daniella Topol) and is thereafter in total control.
Like the rest of the cast and production staff, Norment has almost no Broadway credits (other than two understudy stints). But Broadway credits do not necessarily signify talent, and Norment gives a forceful perf in a role that never lets up.
April Matthis (as the poetess) and the other actors (in multiple roles) are almost uniformly strong, although one actress overdoes a couple of her impersonations and should be toned down.
Callaghan is not a newcomer, exactly. Her program bio lists productions, awards, grants and commissions, both here and abroad, but nothing that could be described as mainstream. “Dead City” was commissioned by Playwrights Horizons, which presumably passed on the finished script (which might have been a hard sell on the new 42nd Street). It was further developed at the Public Theater in 2005.
Director Topol, too, has a raft of credits on productions you might never have heard of. She does a fine job, placing Callaghan’s flowing texture on a simple stage with three movable walls of painted-cardboard brick, fronting a screen that overflows with projection and video (the latter designed by William Cusick). Thus, Samantha’s tour is at once realistic and fanciful, with the highlight being a flying taxicab (really).
Everything resolves itself in Samantha’s bedroom; per a radio broadcaster who provides occasional narration, “The subway map of your life has a red arrow pointing to that room, with a circle around the bed and big red capitals that say, ‘You are here.’ ” (That’s the kind of language Callaghan gives us all evening.)
Somewhat remarkably, play ends with an extended monologue by the heretofore mostly silent husband (Peter Rini) that illuminates what came before.
“Dead City” is clearly what one may describe as a “downtown play.” 3LD is a spanking-new venue beneath a parking garage just off the Manhattan exit ramp of the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel. It’s clean, comfortable and spacious, although it could do with some seat cushions.
It’s a downtown play, but put Meryl Streep or Nicole Kidman in the central role and they could sell out the Broadhurst in a snap. With a Manhattan-based, female “Ulysses,” even.