Review: “Bloomsday”

Bryce Gangel and Jack DeCesare in “Bloomsday.” (Photo by Michael Courier)

RECOMMENDED

Where: Northlight Theatre, North Shore Center for the Performing Arts,
9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie
When: through June 16
Tickets: $30-$88
Phone: 847-673-6300

By ANNE SPISELMAN
Theater critic

Romance and regret mingle in “Bloomsday,” Steven Dietz’s charming and disarming meditation on the one that got away. The two-act play also is his irreverent riff on James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” often hailed as the greatest novel in the English language.

Like the book, the play takes place in Dublin on a single day—June 16, Bloomsday (or so we’re told) – but you needn’t have read that massive tome to enjoy Dietz’s offbeat tribute. The four characters tell us everything we need to know, because the conceit for the story is a tour of the Dublin sights, shops, and dining spots mentioned in “Ulysses.”

But there’s a catch: Time is malleable in this literate fantasy. As is explained early on: “Time is a chord … Many notes, past-present-future, all real…all alive…all played at once.” This slippage in time is both a major plot device and a mental illness afflicting the women.

The first person we meet, though, is Robert (Shawn Douglass), a 55-year old American professor who teaches “Ulysses” and has returned to Dublin 35 years after his first visit to recapture … well, something. He apparently wants to revisit an experience that altered the course of his whole life and to change the outcome, which was based on a decision that has left him feeling cold ever since. He’s written a letter to someone and has plans to meet that person later on.

Robert soon encounters Caithleen (Bryce Gangel), the young woman who is leading the Dublin tour. He’s enthralled. Unsure of herself to start with, she’s clearly disconcerted, especially when he seems to know all about her and predicts what will happen that day.

As becomes obvious pretty quickly, Caithleen is the girl Robert met and fell in love with when he was 20-year-old Robbie (Jack DeCesare) visiting Dublin just because it was an alternate place to go when the woman he was going to London with dumped him. That boy had never heard of Joyce or “Ulysses” and joined Caithleen’s tour simply because she asked him to be the 14th, so the group wouldn’t be an unlucky 13.

The fourth member of the quartet is Cait (Annabel Armour), the older version of Caithleen who, we gradually learn, has ended up as she feared, in the same institution as her mother. But she’s out for the day and, with clairvoyance like Robert’s, tries to advise Robbie.

Despite Dietz’s witty writing and Robert’s amusing disdain for Joyce, this set-up threatens to bog down in the first act. But things pick up in the second, as Robbie and Caithleen spend their day together following in the footsteps of Joyce’s Leopold Bloom with stops at Sweny’s Chemist for a bar of lemon soap, Davy Bryne’s pub for tiny gorgonzola sandwiches and glasses of burgundy, and St. Stephen’s Green. Meanwhile, Robert and Caithleen meet again at the pub, share a pint, and reflect on their lives, their former selves, and what might have been. There’s even a final, lovely, bittersweet twist at the end.

While all this could be a little too precious and predictable, director J.R. Sullivan and his cast keep it real. Gangel and DeCesare are especially delightful as the young lovers, eager and ebullient one minute, warily feeling their way around each other the next. When he impulsively asks her to run away with him, she pulls back saying he doesn’t know her. When she is willing to take a leap of faith, he hesitates.

Jack Magaw’s scenic design, with a curving cobbled walkway downstage, serves the multiple locations neatly, and Yeaji Kim’s projections of Dublin buildings add a bit of the city’s texture, as do Claire Chrzan’s lighting and Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen’s sound design. Mieka van der Ploeg’s costumes are quietly apropos.

“Bloomsday” isn’t likely to set off any fireworks, but it may make you nostalgic for Dublin whether or not you’ve been there and surely will make you reflect on your lost loves, if you have any.