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Interview: Brian Watkins Has an Epiphany at Lincoln Center Theater

Watkins's new play is directed by Tyne Rafaeli and stars Marylouise Burke.

Snow falls gently on the periphery of a stately mansion somewhere outside the city. Indoors, a group of guests await the arrival of someone who may or may not be attending, as they celebrate a sort-of forgotten holiday. The tension and uneasiness builds in the hands of director Tyne Rafaeli and playwright Brian Watkins, whose new play, Epiphany, is running through July 24 at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center.

This production of Watkins's dark comedy, which features a to-die-for cast led by Marylouise Burke, is any writer's dream. And for Watkins, whose Amazon Prime Video sci-fi Western series Outer Range also recently premiered, it's sort of an embarassment of riches. Here, he tells us about it.

Brian Watkins
(image provided by the production)

This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

What is it like to see the production take the stage in all its glory?
We all went in knowing the aim was to reach this sort of untouchable, unnameable, ephemeral thing, and I think that Tyne captained that ship and guided us there beautifully. Our ensemble is doing the heavy lifting of a play that's nearly two hours long, in one scene, and with nine people, most of whom never get to leave the stage. To throw all of those ingredients into the pot and say, "Go for it! Try to make something that's more than the sum of its parts…" I'm just thrilled that they're able to achieve what they're achieving.

I didn't realize going in that the play was an adaptation of The Dead by James Joyce. Is that where you started?
I was never setting out to do an adaptation or contemporary remake of it. There was just something about that story that totally haunted me. I was workshopping my play Wyoming with the Druid Theatre Company in Ireland, and I was reading Joyce, and it was December, and it was dark at 4pm, and the story worked this magic on me. I couldn't get it out of my head. I came back to New York and assembled a group of 10 people and I asked them a few of the haunted questions that I was being asked from the story, which are reflections on mortality and epiphany. On a very basic level, I wanted to ask, like, "What are the rituals we've lost?" and "If you could create a holiday, what would it be about?" That gave me the comedy of it, and then the play itself came really came from their musings on epiphany. The Dead ended up being an inspirational source and scaffolding as an emotional structure that you can follow from the chaos of the dinner into the opportunity for personal revelation, which is what Joyce does so beautifully.

And you see that in Marylouise Burke and Jonathan Hadary's performances, especially in the climax. I don't think I've ever seen better work out of the two of them, which says a lot given the depth of their repertoires, and your and Tyne's collaboration, since you were able to tap into something to get them there.
Those last 20 minutes were the trickiest part for us to land, because the play does do a very difficult turn at the hour-20 mark. And if we could get the audiences on board with it, we knew we could make something special. So those actors, and our designers…Isabella Byrd lit that space; she knew what we were going for from the beginning and was able to create the atmosphere for those performances to be elucidated in the way that they are. It was such a satisfying collaborative effort.

Carmen Zilles, C.J. Wilson, Marylouise Burke, Colby Minifie, Omar Metwally (seated), David Ryan Smith, Francois Battiste, and Jonathan Hadary in Epiphany. Set design by John Lee Beatty.
(© Jeremy Daniel)

This play was first done in Ireland in 2019. What is it like to come back to it now, knowing the larger connotation that January 6, the date of the holiday Epiphany on which the play is set, has taken on over the last two years?
It's eerie. There's a line in the play where Arin asks straight up, "What are we becoming?" She's asking it from a sincere place, and I suppose that's one way of answering your question. But it is so remarkably complicated and baffling, plus Covid and all that. So how do you reconcile a play that wasn't about that stuff, but now will sort of be forever associated with it? As a company, we were at the table figuring out how it works, and more than anything, the post-pandemic era sharpened some ideas in the play.

Do you see a direct line between the play and your Prime series Outer Range that launched around the same time?
Oh, absolutely. There are two answers to that. One is process, and the other is the content of the stories themselves. Process-wise, I made a point to hire as many of my favorite veteran theater actors as I could. Didi O'Connell, and Will Patton, and Tom Pelphry, and Lili Taylor are in Outer Range. These wonderful actors that have great stage careers really helped us form an ensemble where we played Peter Brook games and read scenes from Pinter plays, and we had a rehearsal period before we started filming, which is unique for TV.

Content-wise, both the play and the series are trying to grapple with unnameable things and are about people that are in search of a higher plane or deeper meaning and don't always find it. They're both interested in more questions than answers, for better or worse, and even though one is set in my favorite hometown in the West and the other is set in what might be a town on the Hudson River, there's an emotional heartbeat that they both share.

Jonathan Hadary, C.J. Wilson, Heather Burns, Marylouise Burke, and Omar Metwally star in Brian Watkins's Epiphany, directed by Tyne Rafaeli, at Lincoln Center's Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater.
(© Jeremy Daniel)