by Samuel L. Leiter
As with many tasty meals, what goes into a worthy play is often rather commonplace, depending for its effect on how the playwright seasons and prepares the familiar ingredients. In the monologue that opens Julia Cho’s flavorsome Aubergine—first seen at the Berkeley Rep and now onstage at Playwrights Horizons—Diane (Jessica Love), a fashionable young woman, tells us of her experience as an obsessive “foodie,” willing to go anywhere in search of exceptional delicacies. However, the dish she most fondly recalls is one her dad used to make, hot pastrami on Italian bread pan-fried in butter, which she describes with mouth-watering images. This signals Cho’s concern with the connection between food and memory, and even life and death.
Similarly, there’s nothing very unusual about what’s on the plate in Cho’s occasionally moving, sometimes funny dramedy: a young chef, Ray (Tim Kang), learns that his long-widowed father (Stephen Park) is dying of cirrhosis. Never able to satisfy his domineering father, who opposed his choice of profession and didn’t appreciate his abilities, he struggles with the conflict he feels between love and anger as his father lies comatose in the dining room turned hospice.
Helping Ray to work out his issues are his girlfriend Cornelia (Sue Jean Kim), a grounded, no-nonsense beauty, still upset with Ray after their recent breakup; his father’s nurse, Lucien (Michael Potts), a deeply sensitive, philosophically wise man of indeterminate foreign origin who once lived in a refugee camp; and Ray’s uncle (Joseph Steven Yang), who, despite knowing no English, flies in from abroad to be with his dying brother.
The sauce that gives the touching, but only sporadically dramatic play its piquancy is that the central characters are Korean and, like the dramatist, Korean-American. Ray knows only a few words of Korean but Cornelia is fluent. Ray needs her to interpret, first when he has to inform the uncle, in Korea, by phone of the father’s illness, and then when the uncle, unexpectedly, turns up at Ray’s home. Large swaths are in Korean, either with Cornelia interpreting (adding her own spin when appropriate) or with subtitles. This isn’t a distraction, but rather serves as a savory relish, particularly when the uncle uses gestures to communicate.
Unfortunately, there’s not quite enough meat on Aubergine’s bones to fill out its over two hours’ traffic on the stage; toward the end, the conclusion seems ever more elusive. It proceeds from brief episode to brief episode but rarely comes to a boil, the most intense moment coming just before intermission as Ray repels the insistence of his uncle to prepare a special soup for the father, for which he’s actually brought a turtle. The lack of incident may lead some to wonder whatever happened to Diane, the pastrami lady. Whether or not you swallow the coincidence that brings her back for the final scene, when she bites into her food your memory of a famous movie moment may trigger an “I’ll have what she’s having” response.
Aubergine gets a terrific production at the directorial hands of Kate Whoriskey, who moves it along with great efficiency on a set by Derek McLane that embraces the principal scenes within a circular wall that splits into two parts, each of which slides upstage to show what’s inside; when the circle closes, its wall backs the downstage scenes. McLane’s scenery and Jennifer Moeller’s costumes look perfect under Peter Kaczorowski’s elegant lighting.
Kang nails Ray’s tight-as-a-spring temperament, captured in body language that often prevents him from looking others straight on, while Kim gives Cornelia a laser-like intelligence modified by just the right degree of warmth. Yang makes the kindly uncle humorously sincere; Park, required to look out of it most of the time, is perfectly fine in his spoken scenes, especially when he berates Ray for buying an expensive knife; Potts brings gentle compassion and honesty to the borderline cliché role of Lucien; and Love is lovely as Diane.
Aubergine is the uncommon word for a common vegetable, eggplant. In her play, Julia Cho also has made something uncommon out of the common.
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Through October 2