May 21, 2016

"Daphne's Dive" Is a Little Too Shallow

Daphne's Dive, the bar in the play of that same name which opened this week at Signature Theatre, seems to be a great place to hang out. The bar's genial regulars are diverse ethnically and politically; and its owner is generous, both with the drinks she pours and the gruff affection she dispenses.

But I'm not sure that what happens at the bar makes for good theater. Relationships there change without apparent reason. People give rambling speeches that evaporate in the air. Situations present themselves and then disappear.

That may be the way it happens in real life (and this is a production that prides itself on its verisimilitude; I spent my early childhood in the working-class bars my father managed and can say honestly hats off to Donyale Werle's authentic set). 

But I expect something more from the theater, particularly when the playwright is a Pulitzer Prize winner, as is Quiara Alegría Hudes, who won the award in 2012 for Water by the Spoonful, the second in her trilogy about an Iraqi War veteran struggling to adjust to civilian life (click here for my review).

That story was inspired by a relative's experiences and Hudes, whose parents ran a neighborhood bar in North Philadelphia, has borrowed from her life again. But this time she's intentionally switched the focus to the struggles that working class women face (click here to read a Q&A with her).

There are men in Daphne's Dive but the most dynamic characters are its women, from Daphne's nouveau riche sister Inez to Jennifer Song, the bar's resident radical who uses the American flag as a fashion accessory.

But the central relationship is between Daphne and Ruby, the abused girl she adopts. The play unfolds over two decades from the start of the mid '90s dot-com boom to the beginning of the Occupy Movement. The passage of time is marked at the start of each scene with Ruby telling the audience how old she is.

Lots of things happen as she comes of age. Characters get rich, run for political office, fall in love, get divorced, get hooked on drugs, die. But almost all of that happens offstage and in the interstices between the scenes. Which doesn't leave much for the audience to engage with.

A series of celebrations and holidays keep the characters returning to the bar, but those occasions seem more and more contrived as the play goes on. As do the revelations and epiphanies that those encounters are suppose to provoke.

The show's director is Thomas Kail, who helmed Hamilton, TV's "Grease: Live" and In the Heights, whose book Hudes also wrote (click here to read an interview with him). 

Kail is a master at smoothing the transitions between disparate events, as he proved in Lin-Manuel Miranda's survey of the significant moments in Alexander Hamilton's life but he isn't able to smooth over the cracks in this one.

Still, he does what he can. He has staged Daphne's Dive in the round, which may make it tricky to see everything that is going on but also creates a feeling of intimacy in which the audience is standing in for the other customers in the bar.

His cast, which includes Vanessa Aspillaga as Daphne, Samira Wiley as Ruby and the scene-stealing Daphne Rubin-Vega as Inez, is all-around excellent. 

And under his sympathetic direction, all the actors so fully embody their characters that it's easy to see how much these people care for one another even when they are fighting with one. 

The problem is that the play doesn't give us enough to understand how they got that way. "I'm depending on you to tell me what that all meant," my friend Mimi said as we left the theater. As warm as I felt toward the gang in Daphne's Dive, I didn't t have an answer.

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