Daphne’s Dive, a play about a family of regulars at a North Philly bar, is put together by a family of exciting artists: Samira Wiley (Poussey in Orange is the New Black) and Daphne Rubin-Vega (Rent) are in the cast. Playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes (In The Heights) reunites with director Tommy Kail (Hamilton.)
In an interview published in a publication of New York’s Signature Theater, where the play has opened, Hudes says that Daphne’s Dive is her effort to “loosen up and have fun” — to be “playful” — after her trilogy of grim plays about a returning Vietnam veteran, the second of which, Water by the Spoonful, won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize in Drama.
And indeed, as we follow the seven street savvy and warm characters as they age over the course of 18 years, Daphne’s Dive is at its best when it’s letting them have fun – and letting the audience have fun with them. But if it’s at times playful, it is also a play full of misery. The characters struggle to suppress their traumas, not always successfully. The play itself – although well-acted and largely well-designed — is least successful when it piles on one too many sorrows.
Daphne (Vanessa Aspillaga) owns a bar frequented by some vivid and endearing people – visual artist Pablo (Matt Saldivar), who goes through people’s garbage in order to find objects to paint; Rey (Gordon Joseph Weiss) a free spirit who eschews material possessions except for his motorcycle, spending money as quickly as he makes it; Jenn (K.K. Moggie), another apparent free spirit, but a political one who spends all her time thinking up colorful guerilla protests at City Hall; Daphne’s sister Inez (Rubin-Vega), who has become a rich suburban housewife, and Inez’s husband Acosta (Carlos Gomez), a successful entrepreneur who becomes a successful politician.
Into this mix enters Ruby (Wiley), whom we first meet when she is 11 years old, a refugee from the neglectful family in the upstairs apartment. Her parents have been carted off to jail after a police raid, and her siblings have been sent to Family Services. But Ruby escaped by jumping out a third floor window, landing behind the dumpster. Daphne eventually adopts her.
In the first line of the play, Ruby had said “I am eleven,” and in each of the four scenes to follow, the audience is oriented to the passage of time by Ruby’s announcing her age: “I am 15,” “I am 20,” “I am 25,” “I am 29.”
As the scenes progress, our understanding of the characters deepen, and often darken. Daphne, sober and responsible, has resigned herself to a life without sex. As she says (in the kind of grounded poetic line that Hudes pulls off so well):
“I own a bar. I need two feet to stand, two hands to mix, a brain to add. All these other parts? Extraneous.”
Daphne, it turns out, was also abused, which helps explain her bonding with her adopted daughter. The revelation of secrets works well enough for most of the characters, but the play goes too far with Jenn, whose kooky expressions of political beliefs morph into self-destructive mental illness that seems implausibly extreme. This knocks off-kilter what was otherwise a credible low-key series of character sketches.
Perhaps I just had an unlucky seat, but the staging was such that, in what felt like half the time (but probably was just a third), one performer or another was fully blocking my view of the actor speaking. Otherwise, Tommy Kail’s direction can not be faulted. He brings out the best in the actors and assembles a wonderful creative team, and costume designer Toni-Leslie James aids in distinguishing the characters – Inez is always dressed to the nines, in steep contrast to her sister – and in making real the elapse of time from 1994 to 2011. Michel Camilo’s lively music makes even the scene changes inviting.
Daphne’s Dive is on stage at the Signature Theatre (480 West 42nd Street, New York, NY 10036, East of Tenth Avenue) extended through June 12, 2016.
Tickets and details
Daphne’s Dive by Quiara Alegría Hudes.. Directed by Thomas Kail. Featuring 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, Samira Wiley as Ruby. Scenic design by Donyale Werle, costume design by Toni-Leslie James, lighting design by Betsy Adams, sound design by Nevin Steinberg, music by Michel Camilo. Reviewed by Jonathan Mandell.