By Tulis McCall
Daphne’s Dive at Signature Theatre is a play about a Latina small business owner, Daphne (Vanessa Aspillaga) making her life work on her own terms. Score one for the home team.
Daphne has a regular clientele at her bar that is part family and part friends – hence they make up one lumpy family that belongs to her. Her sister Inez (Daphne Rubin-Vega) is newly moved to the suburbs where she has no trouble spending money and no problem nursing the chip on her shoulder because she is the only Latina in the hood. Her husband Acosta (Carlos Gomez) owns his own glass company and is busy transforming North Philly one window at a time. He is also dabbling in politics and experiencing the baggage that comes with it.
Jenn (KK Mogie) is a vagabond whose appearance on the scene is never explained. She is a free spirit who sees the poison in every corner of modern life and wants to set a match to it all. She would have been at the forefront of the Occupy Movement, but as it is she was ahead of her times. Pablo (Matt Soldivar) is also a vagabond, but his forte is painting and his passion’s subject is garbage. Rey (Gordon Joseph Weiss) has just rolled into town on his latest morotcycle. He is looking for his old friend Acosta to hook him up with some honest work that will keep him in food, gas and drink for the time being. Where he lives, exactly, is a mystery.
The only person whose origin is known is Ruby (Samira Wiley) who belonged to the family two floors up in Daphne’s building. When the cops busted them, Ruby ran, flew out a window, and landed behind a dumpster. She is discovered a day later by Pablo, and Daphne becomes her new home. We meet Ruby when she is 11 and follow her and the others for 18 years.
So, okay. An excellent group of folks. Lots of potential. Ms. Hudes gives us fully formed characters with wishes and disappointments by the bucketload. There are layers and layers of hopes and dreams and just plan old yearning piled up like artifacts at a grave site. We have all the ingredients for a feast. However, while Hudes does try to connect the dots, these people’s paths cross with only the barest of connections.
The initial visible center is Acosta who doles out favors and grants wishes. He has money to give and real estate to borrow. The real center of their universe, the one person to whom everyone is not only attached but committed, is Ruby. She was dropped into their world by a stork who didn’t think being 11 meant you were too old to be born again. As they circle to protect Ruby we learn their stories. Inez is a feminist who works with inner city women and thinks Ruby could use a place to feel safe and tell her story. Jenn shares her own grimy childhood with no holds barred, and Ruby relishes their raw communication. Acosta is Ruby’s godfather. Pablo is an unofficial big brother and is also the recipient of Ruby’s unquestioning faith in his artwork. Rey is an uncle with his ear to the ground.
Over the course of the play Ruby ages 17 years. The others change a bit but Ruby is the only one who carries her years with elegance and ease. She is the one character that we believe throughout. Hers is the story onto which we can hitch a ride.
The rest of this fine cast has to deal with inconsistencies and missing information as they construct their characters. Each of them is a skillful artist, but the chasms they have to negotiate are daunting. In addition the staging of this play is odd – several important scenes take place in an area of the stage not visible from an entire section of seats. And if you are in the end seats closest to the permanent wall – good luck.
Daphne’s Dive is one of those plays (and there are way too many of them) that makes you wonder if anyone read it before they decided to produce it. While the characters are the exact ones we need to see more often on the stage (and in every other medium), the play itself was a surface offering. This play told me about these people but never let me in. Kind of like a chef who describes the dish she is about to prepare but forgets to bring it to your table. I want to taste the food. Hell, I want to go into the kitchen and look in the garbage pails. I want the whole deal, not the story of the whole deal.
DAPHNE’S DIVE Written by Quiara Alegría Hudes; Directed by Thomas Kail
Cast: Vanessa Aspillaga as Daphne, Carlos Gomez as Acosta, K.K. Moggie as Jenn, Daphne Rubin-Vega as Inez, Matt Saldivar as Pablo, Gordon Joseph Weiss as Rey and Samira Wiley as Ruby
Donyale Werle (Scenic Design), Toni-Leslie James (Costume Design), Betsy Adams (Lighting Design), Nevin Steinberg (Sound Design) and Michel Camilo (Composer). Lori Ann Zepp is the Production Stage Manager.
Signature Theatre (James Houghton, Founding Artistic Director; Erika Mallin, Executive Director) producers. April 26 through June 12 in The Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre at The Pershing Square Signature Center (480 West 42nd Street between 9th and 10th Avenues). To purchase tickets for all Signature productions, call Ticket Services at 212-244-7529 (Tues. – Sun., 11am – 6pm) or visit signaturetheatre.org.