by Michael Bracken
Red alert! There’s an energy drain at Playwrights Horizons, where Julia Cho’s Aubergine is currently in residence, and no one seems to know how to stop it. True, the play deals with dying, so a certain amount of lethargy is to be expected. But even death can be a catalyst for action, and director Kate Whoriskey hasn’t figured out how to get a charge from it or the play’s other themes.
Cho begins her drama with a Caucasian woman named Diane (Jessica Love) telling the audience about her past as a “foodie.” She goes on to describe the pastrami sandwiches her cancer-riddled father prepared even after he received his deathly diagnosis.
While her monologue reflects the play’s major motifs (food, family, and death), it’s a narrative red herring that sheds no light on the main story line. It’s soon forgotten until Diane reappears at the play’s forced conclusion. She and her story serve as bookends, more decorative than illustrative.
At the center of Aubergine is Ray (Tim Kang), a Korean-American and professional chef, whose father (Stephen Park) has cirrhosis. Ray takes him out of the hospital so he can die at home.
His father’s illness is both a shock and a wake-up call for Ray. Their relationship was contentious, and now he’s trying to make up for lost time while his father is barely conscious. He’s helped by his girlfriend, Cornelia (Sue Jean Kim), and a hospice nurse, Lucien (Michael Potts).
Lucien is unflappable. He dispenses sage advice with Zen-like calm. Potts breathes some life into him but can’t quite prevent him from coming across as too good to be true. Underscoring Aubergine’s belief in the importance of food, Lucien gives Ray a flawless eggplant. He suggests that Ray think of it as an aubergine, the French word for the fruit.
Kim’s Cornelia is less of a saint, but not by much. Neglected by Ray, she initially thinks their relationship is over, but once she hears about his father’s condition, she’s there at his side, steadfast and true. Kim’s portrayal is straightforward and winning.
As Ray, Kang has the task of portraying a complex network of emotions. His father is dying, he’s trying to balance work and family, and he’s reunited with his girlfriend. That’s a lot for an actor to deal with. Yet almost all that comes across is crankiness. Ray has every right to be cranky, and Kang to play him as such, but it would be nice if we saw more facets of his personality.
Joseph Steven Yang, as Ray’s uncle and his father’s younger brother, brings a welcome note of humor when he unexpectedly visits from Korea. Wide-eyed and almost always smiling, he’s nonetheless unyielding in his quest for Ray to prepare turtle soup and feed it to his father. He thinks it will be good for his brother’s liver. Ray gives in and makes the soup, but his father won’t eat it.
Kate Whoriskey’s direction is competent but not inspired. For instance, both Diane and Cornelia deliver monologues with the same blocking. Each begins stage right, then takes a few steps left mid-monologue, then finishes the monologue stage left.
Scenic designer Derek McLane’s set is fluidly functional. A semicircular screen faces away from the audience and most scenes outside of Ray’s parental home, including the several monologues addressed to the audience, take place in front of it. For scenes within the home, the semi-circle opens up to reveal a standard issue, somewhat old-fashioned middle class dining room, complete with wooden (probably cherry) table and china cabinet. It also has a simple chandelier, which lighting designer Peter Kaczorowski effectively uses to soften the stage for more intimate moments.
Through Sunday, October 2. Playwrights Horizons’ Mainstage Theater (416 West 42nd Street). 2hrs. 5 minutes with one intermission. www.playwrightshorizons.org.
Photos: Joan Marcus