Hunter Saling and Rachel Weck in "Bloomsday" at North Coast Rep. Photo by Aaron Rumley
Though Robert, one of the play’s principal characters, derides James Joyce’s epic “Ulysses” time and again (even though as a professor he teaches the book), Steven Dietz’s “Bloomsday” is a sheer homage to the venerable 20th-century novel set in Dublin. Dietz crafted a sweetly enigmatic story that intentionally honors many of Joyce’s bold literary devices in “Ulysses”: alternating narrators, non-linear storytelling, jumps back and forth in time, ruminations that, while not quite streams of consciousness as in the novel, are nonetheless dreamy and self-indulgent.
Confession: I’ve never read “Ulysses” all the way through myself. Whether one had seemed to be the question in the air during intermission Saturday night at the North Coast Rep, which is presenting the San Diego premiere of “Bloomsday” under the direction of Andrew Barnicle. In eavesdropping as inconspicuously as possible, I picked up on the reality that no one who was asked this question answered in the affirmative.
But knowledge of “Ulysses” or even of Joyce isn’t absolutely essential to following “Bloomsday,” which on its own merits could be appreciated as a parallel-time love story replete with cogent if not exactly subtle messaging about second chances. The North Coast Rep cast, too, is an appealing one, with all but one of the four actors making their debut at the Solana Beach theater.
It’s quickly apparent in the 35-minute-long first act that American Robert (Martin Kildare) and Dubliner Cait (Jacquelyn Ritz, the one North Coast Rep returnee) are not merely observing but are counseling and advising the two younger versions of themselves: Robbie (Hunter Saling) and Caithleen Rachel Weck). But for one surprise reveal about Cait that arrives in the second act, the audience knows how the fleeting romance between her and Robert, and between their younger selves, will end. The mind games going on and the lyricism of Dietz’s language (another nod to Joyce?) are where one’s attention lies.
“Bloomsday’s” Act 2, in which Robbie and Caithleen rather cutely thrust and parry, picks up the pace from a short but sluggish opening act, and it’s in the younger lovers’ flirtations that our emotional investment in the play comes to the forefront. When it’s stopped cold by the present-day Robert and Cait’s acceptance of reality, our disappointment for them is just as emergent.
Weck and especially Ritz work very hard at their Irish accents. This effort toward authenticity, however, can be a bit distracting. The most memorable attempt actually comes from Saling in a sequence at a pub where Robbie has been cajoled by Caithleen to read from “Ulysses” out loud. There isn’t a lot of humor in “Bloomsday,” and what there is most of the time succeeds. It could probably have used more.
It’s a shame that the North Coast Rep production winds up nearly two weeks before Valentine’s Day because in the main, “Bloomsday” is a plaintively sentimental love story with a well-intended cautionary for all who hesitate to follow their hearts.
“Bloomsday” runs through Feb. 2 at North Coast Repertory Theatre in Solana Beach.
"Dear Evan Hansen" is making its San Diego debut. Photo by Matthew Murphy
“Dear Evan Hansen” takes a single premise – a misunderstanding over a letter – and exploits it to a vast, illogical and highly emotional conclusion. That narrative-wise the 2016 stage musical is inherently … well, problematic … proves little if any detriment to the impact of actually appreciating its two and a half hours: Many among the opening-night crowd at the Civic Theatre, where Broadway San Diego is presenting a national tour of “Dear Evan Hansen,” cried on and off throughout. This show, written by Steven Levenson with music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, won the Tony for Best Musical and seems to have won hearts too because it connects with people on a personal level. It speaks to the chasm of darkness inside those who feel disconnected from those around them, from those who love or supposedly love them, or more frighteningly from the world at large.
Evan Hansen (Stephen Christopher Anthony) is a high school boy being raised by his divorced mother (Jessica E. Sherman), his father having split to pursue a new life with a new family back when Evan was 7. The sweet, gangly Evan suffers from social anxiety and over-apologizing to the point that he is in therapy, and among his prescribed psychological treatments is to write letters of affirmation and positivity to himself. When one of them, which among other things expresses his hidden feelings for a girl named Zoe Murphy (Stephanie La Rochelle), is swiped from him by Zoe’s angry and bullying brother Connor (Noah Kieserman), Evan’s fate (and that of others) will change: Connor takes his own life, and when the letter headed “Dear Evan Hansen” is found in his possession, it is assumed that Evan was the troubled youth’s only friend. What begins for the frazzled Evan as a means of comforting Connor’s grieving (or in denial) family gets quickly out of hand. Lies beget lies beget lies, even as Connor’s family (John Hemphill, Claire Rankin, La Rochelle) draw him close to them.
“Dear Evan Hansen” is a dialogue-heavy musical, which can be tricky within the Civic Theatre’s undependable acoustics. But the show’s non-singing sequences allow for essential character development. We get to know not only Evan but his anguished mother in particular more fully than if only in song. The score is melodic and purposeful and dominated by confessional tunes (“Waving Through a Window,” “Requiem,” “If I Could Tell Her”) and the profoundly cathartic “You Will Be Found,” which distinguishes Act 1 and is reprised later.
Because Evan’s plight and the consequences of the misunderstanding (including the commemorative campaign in Connor’s memory that unfolds) are driven by social media, the visuals and digital accoutrements of personal technology make up the very set itself -- dinging and pinging and echoing a chorus of “virtual community voices,” and in so doing cementing “Dear Evan Hansen” as a theatrical product and critical reflection of the digital age. Social media is not new, nor was it when the show opened in 2016, but the seismic complications it has wrought among young people especially are at the foundation of this show.
Anthony is most sympathetic in the role made famous on Broadway by Ben Platt, making Evan less a nerd than a sweet but damaged youth. While the supporting cast is solid around him, no one else strikes the resonant chords that Anthony does, though Sherman comes closest in the painful “So Big/So Small” in Act 2, where Heidi Hansen expresses the desperation any mother out of her depth might express.
Messages here for after the show: Kids, talk to your parents. Parents, talk (and listen) to your kids.
“Dear Evan Hansen” runs through Jan. 12 at the Civic Theatre, downtown.
David L. Coddon is theater critic for San Diego CityBeat