This week, Dylan Key, Undermain’s Associate Director, recommends Dead City by Sheila Callaghan.

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There’s a play, first produced in 2005, about a mother-daughter relationship around Christmas, that features a talking house, Harrison Ford, and Justin Timberlake (in an appearance not dissimilar from Jon Bon Jovi’s entrance into Amy Poehler’s high school bedroom:

That play, Crumble (Lay Me Down, Justin Timberlake), by Sheila Callaghan, is not the script I’m recommending today.  It was, however, my first introduction to the strange and wild plays of the writer Sheila Callaghan.

Callaghan writes sharp, clever, quick-witted plays with characters who whip dialogue around to wound, comfort, amuse, and shield.  Her plays often move at breakneck pace before suddenly opening up into moments of tremendous deftness and subtlety.  Her adaptation of James Joyce’s Ulysses, Dead City, is an example of this, and a terrific play in its own right.

Dead City is set in New York City on June 16, 2004 (that’s 100 years from the day that Joyce’s tale is set, aka Bloomsday).  Where Joyce’s story follows Leopold Bloom, Dead City tracks the day of one Samantha Blossom.  Like Bloom, she too discovers a letter addressed to her spouse (her husband, in Callaghan’s gender-reversed retelling) from his lover.  She travels throughout the city, runs into a young depressed poet (Jewel), has a momentary affair with an unnamed young man, goes on a disorienting whirlwind adventure into the meat-packing district, and ends up back at home to sleep.

For any fans of Joyce’s original work, many of the play’s pleasures come from seeing how Callaghan adapts 1904 Dublin into 2004 New York City and how she puts Joyce’s linguistic experiments into the mouths of busy New Yorkers.  Dedalus’ view from Martello Tower in Dun Laoghaire over Dublin Bay is echoed in Jewel’s appraisal of New York from the West Side Highway pedestrian path “…the west side highway is now laid across my lap and the crossing is all that lies between myself and this day’s most absurd parade and if I could levitate I would choose this very moment but I cannot so I wait for the sign to stop blinking and I wrap my mind around a single image that continues to open into itself in an infinite stumble through space don’t walk…”  The funeral, the hospital scene, the visit to the library, all of Joyce’s chapters are translated into a modern view of New York, and an audience member or reader gleefully awaits Callaghan’s next move.

For those not familiar with “Ulysses”, Callaghan has crafted a script that is still completely enjoyable on its own merits and full of delights and wit, while also becoming a quite poignant commentary on modern society, and isolation within one of the worlds largest cities.  Samantha’s loneliness and boredom within a bustling day full of frantic travel and even more frantic ideas and emotions are relatable to anyone who has worked in a big city.  And the final beats of the play, when tipsy Samantha returns to the bed of her husband, Gabriel, are justly earned and can resonate with any viewer or reader, a quiet yearning rewarded by a personal connection after a long day of human trial.

Dead City has been published by Samuel French and can be purchased at  Sheila Callaghan is a member of New Dramatists and is represented by CAA.  You can learn more at her website:

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