Retellings of famous works can be a dicey proposition. If the original is well loved, a new version will face harsh scrutiny by the old version's admirers. Yet just as great movies can be made out of good books, sometimes another author's fresh take on a classic can streamline the story and illuminate the points that the source material tried to make. James Joyce's Ulysses, a large book dense with complex thoughts and literary styles, may be familiar to English majors and fans of Irish literature, but it has not exactly cracked the mainstream. The work itself is a reworking of Homer's The Odyssey, so it's appropriate that it, too, has received a makeover, courtesy of playwright Sheila Callaghan. Her version, Dead City, cuts down the number of characters and switches their genders, tosses out plotlines, and transplants the action from early-20th-century Dublin to late-20th-century New York. In so doing, her judicious pruning has allowed the germ of Joyce's (and Callaghan's) ideas to blossom.
"Blossom" is, indeed, the surname of the main character, Samantha, whom we follow over the course of a day. Her morning routine of making breakfast in bed for her singer husband Gabriel is thrown off by the appearance of a jasmine-scented letter from Gabriel's new (female) booking agent. Concern over her spouse's infidelity and the stability of their marriage informs her choices the moment she puts foot to sidewalk.
As Samantha goes about tending to obligations (chatting to her heavily pregnant neighbor, attending a funeral, having a business meeting), she keeps running into Jewel, the troubled poet daughter of her carpenter. Jewel has not gotten over her mother's lost battle with lung cancer and seems to be on her own fast route to mortality through a life of alcoholism and indolence. Samantha finds herself drawn toward protecting the young woman, while at the same time envying her independence from responsibility and people.
Apart from Samantha and Jewel, the rest of the cast fills multiple roles as the people whom the two main characters run into during the day. The performers work on a set of minimal props and movable stonewalls, assisted by projected images and text that announce each scene's location and time of day. Cameron Anderson's utilitarian set design works well with William Cusick's photo-realistic (and sometimes hilarious) projections to create a world that the audience readily accepts as both normal and the far edge of normal.
The strong acting ensemble carries the story through its wanderings in and out of the regular world, so that the digressions into fantasy and inner monologues seem natural. As Samantha, Elizabeth Norment is a strong and sympathetic lead who projects such a rich inner life that she seems too genuine to be merely a script's creation. Norment's commitment enriches her scene work with the other characters, so that even short exchanges have a sense of verisimilitude.
As Jewel, April Matthis is so tortured and unhinged that one starts to imagine the growls of her empty stomach and the stench of booze and body odor from her clothes and unwashed skin. (It's great to see a performer playing a homeless person who doesn't look like a college student in precisely torn togs.)
Callaghan's script makes many references to Joyce's book. Both set their stories on June 16 (also known as Bloomsday to the Irish writer's fans). Samantha Blossom (the Internet consultant) is a direct nod to Ulysses's Leopold Bloom (the advertising-space salesman), just as Jewel (the grieving young poet) is similar to the book's Stephen Dedalus (the grieving young writer). The most amusing and inventive parallel is the scene that Joyce sets on "the strand" (a term used for major thoroughfares in England) and that Callaghan sets in the Strand (the independent bookstore in downtown Manhattan). To Callaghan's credit, the allusions do not seem shoehorned in but work as organic parts of the new story.
The only part of Ulysses that didn't work as well in Dead City is Gabriel's final soliloquy. In the book, Bloom's spouse Molly is given a chance to express her own viewpoint on some of the events of their shared past. Since readers can see the number of pages left in a novel, they can readily accept the change of protagonist and adjust their sense of the novel's narrative arc according to how close they are to the back cover.
In the play, however, Gabriel's speech came across as less of a denouement and more as an extra scene that was ill-advisedly tacked on to the end. Perhaps it was because the audience members were so emotionally invested in Samantha that they were not interested in listening to her adulterous husband.
Well-written, original plays are not a regular part of New York's theatrical landscape. It's a delightful surprise when one appears, even if it's a revision of an already published work. Yet it's dismissive to think of Dead City as just another link in a historical chain. Sheila Callaghan's play is a unique and completely contemporary bit of magic.