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.
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David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.