What does it mean to be truly touched? In our desensitized society — where we are constantly bombarded with Twitter updates, YouTube videos and overly revealing photographs — do we ever actually feel? "Dead City," Sheila Callaghan's modern riff on James Joyce's "Ulysses," explores this theme of connection, or the lack thereof, in its run at Leeds Theatre this weekend.
Director Alexandra Keegan '12 said she was interested in staging female narratives, as well as examining themes of female friendship and motherhood. "Dead City" was an apt choice for such an exploration. Set in New York City on June 16, 2004, the anniversary of the Dublin stroll Joyce's characters embarked on a century earlier, the play follows the daily activities of Upper East Side resident Samantha Blossom (Sophie Netanel '12) as she traverses the chameleonic streets of Manhattan. Haunted by the death of her stillborn son 22 years earlier and trapped in a tortured marriage, Samantha goes through the motions of her day largely in silence. The audience alone is privy to her cacophonous thoughts and emotions as they battle within her, burying her under an insurmountable weight of grief, confusion, lust, anger and love.
Crash-landing into Samantha's life is the volatile tour de force Jewel Jupiter (Emma Thorne '12.5). Jewel, defined by her crass roommate Beatrice (Alejandra Rivera-Flavia '13) as a "scholar, journalist, slut-du-jour — but not a poet" becomes Samantha's often coincidental companion throughout the day. Samantha first runs into Jewel's father, carpenter Jacob Jupiter (Jared Bellot '12), at the funeral of a friend in Queens. She then meets Jewel at an office in Midtown where the journalist is busy attempting to pitch a story on the clairvoyant capabilities of performer Patti Smith. They play hide-and-seek with each other through the Big Apple, shadowing one another at the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue, the Strand Bookstore and a club.
Jewel is suffering from her own loss — her mother died a year ago, leaving her with a drunkard father and a stack of bills to pay, not to mention a heavy emotional loss. Choosing to lose herself at the bottom of a bottle rather than confront her issues head-on, Jewel is as lost and emotionally bereft as Samantha is in a city that can lift its denizens up only to drop them back down again.
New York City is front and center in the production. "This summer, we walked through the play in New York City," Keegan said, a process that resulted in the creation of a photomap of the city, which the director provided to artistic designers and actors as a guide to the play.
The use of sound effects contributed well to the sense of being transported to the city, but ultimately it is the actors who breathe life into the streets they traverse. Keegan said they stressed the physicality of each neighborhood during exercises, pointing out different ways people behave in each part of the city. The cast successfully transforms itself throughout the show, taking the audience on a tour of Manhattan. A New Yorker will be extra-sensitive to the humor and playfulness the production is able to convey in its depictions of the Upper East Side elite, Midtown money-grubbers and Village people.
Netanel and Thorne shine in their prospective roles, creating a true relationship on stage that draws the audience in closer. The depth of feelings they are each able to emote on their journey is impressive — a feat matched with ease by the supporting cast, all of whom play multiple roles.
Bellot, in particular, is wonderfully entertaining. His transformations from New York Public Radio host — and simultaneously a part of Samantha's conscience — to Jewel's drunk, but caring, father to a rather colorful cab driver are hilarious and heartwarming in equal parts. Similarly, Rivera-Flavia kills her role as Nora, a slightly unhinged editor whose searing, fast-paced witticisms delight the audience.
Brian Cross '12 as Samantha's straying and indifferent husband Gabriel manages to charm the audience just as he does the women he entertains while she is out. A crooner, Cross also hits some impressive high notes in the one musical number of the production. Cross has one of the most revealing monologues, bringing to the forefront issues that permeate the production. As he wonders at his inability to forge a connection with his wife — though he desires it — we are similarly distraught by his words.
But this play is not all sadness and regret. It tells the story of a crumbling marriage and of several broken, conflicted hearts, yes, but it also provides hints of a healing future where hope and love can bridge even the greatest chasms of loss.
"Dead City" continues its run tonight and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. in Leeds Theatre.
***** (5 stars)
A tale of love and loss is successfully reimagined through stellar acting.