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6:00 PM PDT 5/15/2016 by Frank Scheck
‘Hamilton’ director Thomas Kail stages this new drama from Pulitzer winner Quiara Alegria Hudes, tracking the patrons of a Philadelphia bar over nearly two decades.
Watching Daphne’s Dive, the new play by Pulitzer Prize-winner Quiara Alegria Hudes (Water by the Spoonful), led me to this conclusion: I’m just not spending enough time in bars. The one depicted here is the sort of hangout where you go not so much to drink but rather to engage with your extended family through triumphs and tribulations. Not to mention breaking out into the occasional spontaneous dance party.
Plays set in bars are a time-honored theatrical tradition — Eugene O’Neill managed it nicely with The Iceman Cometh — but they usually have more depth than this effort receiving its world premiere at the Signature Theatre. Not that there’s a dearth of drama going on in the course of this work spanning nearly two decades, including death, divorce, incest, sexual experimentation and, not surprisingly considering its milieu, alcoholism. But it all speeds by so quickly — and paradoxically, sluggishly — that the play feels like a sketch for a more fully worked-out drama that hasn’t yet been written.
The titular establishment is a North Philadelphia dive bar owned by the Puerto Rican born-and-bred Daphne (Vanessa Aspillaga), the sort of wry saloonkeeper who clearly loves her patrons while mostly maintaining a cool distance. We’re introduced to her regulars in the first scene, set in 1994. They include her sister Inez (Daphne Rubin-Vega), who has a taste for luxury and is married to Acosta (Carlos Gomez), an ambitious businessman; Rey (Gordon Joseph Weiss), an amiable good ol’ boy and ardent motorcycle rider; Pablo (Matt Saldivar), an acclaimed painter fallen on hard times; and Jenn (KK Moggie), a socially conscious performance artist first seen in an American flag bikini that she’s worn while dancing at a protest.
The childless, single Daphne experiences a profound change in her life with the sudden appearance of Ruby (Samira Wiley, Orange is the New Black), a frightened 11-year-old girl discovered covered in glass after jumping through the window of her family’s apartment during a police raid.
As we see in the next scene set four years later, Daphne has adopted the young girl with a tortured history. As the play progresses and the action moves forward in four and five-year increments, the characters go through dramatic events. Acosta becomes a successful politician, even as his marriage falls apart. Jenn and Daphne become lovers, until tragedy strikes. And Ruby grows up into a strong, self-possessed young woman who falls victim to the addiction that can naturally spring from spending your formative years in a bar.
Hudes, who also wrote the book for Lin-Manuel Miranda’s first musical, In the Heights, displays a strong feel for her well-drawn characters and their hermetically sealed milieu. But that doesn’t prevent the play from feeling both overstuffed and undernourished, its melodramatic plot developments rushing by as if the playwright was checking off a list. And while there are some poignant, well-observed moments, too much of the dialogue feels forced and rambling.
The piece has been evocatively staged by Thomas Kail (whose recent credits include Fox’s Grease: Live and a little show you may have heard something about called Hamilton) and the performances feel fully lived-in, with Wiley particularly moving as the frightened little girl who blossoms into an impressive if troubled young woman before our eyes. And Donayale Werle’s realistic set design — featuring Christmas lights, a Puerto Rican flag, a neon Budweiser sign and an ancient juke box — makes the dive bar exactly the sort of place you wouldn’t mind ducking into for a cheap beer. Just be warned that the price of a drink includes a lot of listening to other people’s problems.
Venue: Pershing Square Signature Center, New York
Cast: Vanessa Aspillaga, Carlos Gomez, KK Moggie, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Matt Saldivar, Gordon Joseph Weiss, Samira Wiley
Playwright: Quiara Alegria Hudes
Director: Thomas Kail
Set designer: Donyale Werle
Costume designer: Toni-Leslie James
Lighting designer: Betsy Adams
Music: Michel Camilo
Sound designer: Nevin Steinberg
Presented by Signature Theatre