A dead man in a casket is wearing two different shoes: No one could decide which he would prefer. In a break from reality typical of “Dead City,” he sits up in his coffin, yells about how insane he looks, and is shortly a corpse again.
Written by New York playwright Sheila Callaghan, “Dead City” is the manic, intimate profile of the fractured, meekly dissatisfied Samantha Blossom (Hannah Corrigan ’09), a freelancing consultant in New York. Following the lead of Joyce’s “Ulysses,” “City” follows a day in Samantha’s life, distorted and refracted through her active, bewildered mind. She turns on the radio, and the announcer narrates her morning ritual; at a spa, her masseurs act out her stream of consciousness.
“City” is hardly the dystopian nightmare its title suggests. The tragicomic streets of its New York teem with people at once dejected and caricatured: Samantha’s chat room lover quotes French philosophers fluently and opaquely, and uses punctuation enigmatically; Jacob (Andrew Ash ’08) attends a funeral with a bottle of Jack Daniels and a muscle shirt riding up to his chest.
Much of the play’s honesty derives from its ability to regard its characters as objects of both horror and laughter, as very human, immoral but beautiful. Samantha’s husband is something of a non-character for most of the play, almost a symbol of infidelity, but his (very) long soliloquy at the end trivializes his carousing, makes it believable, even understandable. He’s less a sexual monster and more his wife’s male parallel, just as lost and aching as she.
What makes “City” especially striking is its seamless, vivid transitions between mental and physical life. At a club, the dancers surrounding Samantha suddenly collapse, chattering and babbling, around her. She walks among them, and watches them, as if watching her rushing thoughts run over and around each other. The surreality, the insecurity of any apparently real moment reflects the urban consciousness, teetering on the thin line between absurdity and despair, between the mad observer and her mad world.
Some scenes are directed flawlessly by Michael Leibenluft ’10. In a New York office, for example, workers dash frantically on and off stage waving mathematical symbols and methodically shredding documents, all to the measured, shrieking cadences of the editor’s (Summer Banks ’08) incomprehensible cell phone conversations. However, the vitality is somewhat inconsistent, and the frenzied mania or poignant soliloquy that makes some scenes so excellent is tangibly lacking in others. Parts of the play feel strained, struggling to extract significance from lackluster thoughts and dialogue. Samantha and Jewel (Jenny Nissel ’09) harp for a while on some lines written by some forgettable Frenchman, a literary reference that feels harried, bedraggled, stretched to meaninglessness in that peculiar way chick flicks tend to harass and trivialize explicit allusions.
Though on the whole deftly pulled off, some characters do not feel genuine. Jewel in particular is quite convincing as a chronically intoxicated youth, but there is very little of the tormented poet in her. Much of the play’s emotional weight rests on Jewel, and this depiction of the character, lacking a darker, deeper tint, detracts from the play significantly.
“Dead City” is a very successful production of an innovative, poignant play. It is unconventional medicine for the loveless, the existentially tortured and the end-of-semester college student.
There will be a Master’s Tea in Davenport with playwright Sheila Callaghan Friday at 4.