Steven Dietz’s new play at ACT Theatre bends time and space to explore a love affair that might have been.

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A literary and time-travel tale, wrapped with ribbon around a wistful love story: that’s the valentine Steven Dietz sends out, in his bittersweet new play “Bloomsday.”

In its world premiere at ACT Theatre, under Kurt Beattie’s attentive direction, “Bloomsday” is a one-that-got-away romance — a not uncommon love story motif.

But Dietz’s keen wit and unusual format, and his compassion for his characters, make this special — more than the standard tale of an older couple reliving and (perhaps) reviving a lost love 35 years after they first lock eyes.

Theater review

“Bloomsday”

by Steven Dietz. Through Oct. 11 at ACT Theatre, 700 Union St., Seattle; tickets start at $20 (206-292-7676 or acttheatre.org).

When they meet, 20-year-old Cathleen (Sydney Andrews) is an anxious Irish guide, giving a tour of the Dublin depicted during a single day (now referred to as Bloomsday) in James Joyce’s 1922 modernist master-novel, “Ulysses.”

Robbie (Eric Ankrim), also 20, is an American tourist at loose ends, wandering the spare, fine set by Robert Dahlstrom of Dublin’s brick-paved streets. He’s overjoyed to stumble across, then tag after this feisty, pretty girl.

Their connection is frisky, humorous and incandescent. Yet we know in advance that it is also fleeting, because their 55-year-old selves (played by Peter Crook and Marianne Owen, now known as Robert and Cait) have been looking on, commenting, interacting with who they once were and who they’ve become. They know how their lives unspooled without each other — but can’t help imagine how things might have turned out differently.

With intricate cleverness, Dietz evokes, mocks, paraphrases and cannily integrates aspects of Joyce’s epic novel into “Bloomsday.” Robbie hasn’t even heard of this literary landmark when he meets Cathleen, while the older and more cynical Robert brands it “an under-read and overpraised piece of drivel.”

But Dietz’s affection for and fascination with the book are evident. And Joyce’s manipulations of time and space, subject and object (things his contemporary Albert Einstein was also experimenting with) ingeniously inform the script.

Dietz is a trickster plotter, but his work has also matured over time, incorporating more psychological insight and even a breath of sentimentality.

Cathleen is a particularly complex creation one aches for. The notion of her oracular powers, which impact her mental health, is a bit of woo-woo. And before Andrews settles into the role, she seems more disgruntled than beguiling.

The play lingers on setting up its dramaturgical mechanics. But once they’re established, the loneliness and longing deepen in Andrews’ portrayal.

And Cathleen’s reluctance to submit to love at first sight gains poignancy.

Owens, whose facility and depth add so much here, embodies how one can, with age, make peace with lost opportunity — yet still feel pangs of regret.

Crook is good company as the wry, more nostalgic member of this quartet. Robbie is a slighter figure. But Ankrim (an expert shape shifter of an actor) makes the most of what’s there, maturing before us as he tries to understand and win this strange, enchanting girl.

“Bloomsday” is Beattie’s last directing turn as ACT’s artistic director. And the ease and empathy of his staging of the play is a sweet coda for his long run.