29 May 2016

'Daphne's Dive'

“My stepfather owned some bars in Philadelphia, where I used to hang out after school . . . .  I loved the bar as the hub of local news amongst the neighbors—from there the voices just started coming to me.”  That’s the way Quiara Alegría Hudes, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and co-creator with Lin-Manuel Miranda of the Off-Broadway and Broadway hit In the Heights, explains how the idea for Daphne’s Dive, her new play at the Signature Theatre Company, began.  There are seven actors in Daphne’s Dive, but there are eight characters: the neighborhood bar in North Philadelphia that shares its name with the play’s title, is enough of a presence that it becomes a dramatis persona, a figure in the drama.

Daphne’s Dive is Hudes’s first  offering in her five-year playwriting residency at Signature—and her first play since she completed her Elliot Trilogy.  (Hudes is in the first year of her Residency Five term which affords her three productions over five years at the company’s Pershing Square Signature Center on Theatre Row.)  The play started previews in Signature’s Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre, the company’s variable-space black box, on 26 April and opened on 15 May; after a week’s extension from 5 June, the play’s scheduled to close on 12 June.  I met Diana, my regular theater companion, at the Pershing Square Center on Friday evening, 20 May.

Hudes, 38, was born in Philadelphia to a Jewish father, a carpenter, and a Puerto Rican mother (with Taíno Indian roots) who came to Philadelphia when she was 12.  Later, after her parents separated, her mother married a Puerto Rican businessman.  Hudes came to playwriting early, possibly from the influence of her grandmother on her mother’s side who was a vivid storyteller; her first play was produced when she was in eighth grade and by tenth grade, she was winning prizes—first place in the Philadelphia Young Playwrights Festival.  On her father’s side, an aunt instilled in her the love of music and she began writing and composing and studying music in West Philly as a girl.  She earned a B.A. in composition from Yale University—where she wrote two musicals as a student—and played with a band in Philadelphia for a few years. 

Hudes returned to writing, however, and in 2004 she graduated with an MFA from Brown University’s playwriting program, led by playwright Paula Vogel who remains an important influence.  Her first adult play, Yemaya’s Belly, won several playwriting awards in 2003 but its 2005 mounting at the Portland Stage Company in Maine wasn’t critically successful.  Her next work, however, was Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue, the first in her Elliot Trilogy, which was a finalist for the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.  The emerging dramatist next collaborated with Lin-Manuel Miranda on his breakthrough musical, In the Heights, for which Hudes wrote the book.  The musical was first presented in 2005 at the National Music Theatre Conference at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Connecticut, before opening Off-Broadway in 2007.  It won and was nominated for a passel of Off-Broadway theater awards (none specifically for the book, however) and it was again a finalist for the Pulitzer.  In the Heights transferred to Broadway in 2008 and ran for 29 previews and 1184 regular performances until 2011, winning the Tony for Best Musical and several others Tony wins and nominations (including a nom for best book), and another nomination for the Pulitzer Prize.  Hudes’s second Elliot play, Water by the Spoonful, produced by the Second Stage Theatre in 2013, was nominated again for a Pulitzer and this time, Hudes won the 2012 drama prize.  In 2013, the third play in the Elliot trilogy, The Happiest Song Plays Last, was staged at Chicago’s Goodman Theater and Off-Broadway at Second Stage in 2014. 

Hudes has also written a children’s musical, Barrio Grrrl!, which premièred at Washington, D.C.’s Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in 2009 and has toured nationally.  In 2010, she wrote In My Neighborhood, her first children’s book, published by Arthur Levine Books, an imprint of Scholastic Inc.  She’s a resident playwright at New Dramatists and the Shapiro Distinguished Professor of Writing and Theater at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut.  The playwright was tapped in 2015 for a Residency Five spot at STC.  She lives in Washington Heights with her husband, a public defender; her friend and former collaborator Miranda is her downstairs neighbor.  (Miranda and Thomas Kail, Heights and now Daphne’s Dive director, met Hudes in 2004 at an early reading of Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue when they were searching for a librettist for In the Heights.)

As a playwright, Hudes has so far always focused on her own Latino community.  (Though she’s of mixed backgrounds, half Jewish and half Puerto Rican, and “was always shuffling between communities,” Hudes explains, “I was raised by two Puerto Rican parents,” referring to her stepfather.)  Her plays are all set not only in Philadelphia, but in the Latino community of North Philly, where much of her family—she grew up in West Philly—lives and works.  “This is our history: it’s not written down, it’s not recorded, it could disappear,” Hudes’s mother told her, and the playwright took it as “a task” her mother had assigned her.  “Sometimes I wish I could just write plays that don’t have that social context,” she mused, “but I haven’t been able to escape that yet.”  Indeed, after finishing the Elliot Trilogy, she tried to compose a play set somewhere else—still Philadelphia, but on the upscale Main Line; however, she abandoned the effort “because it’s a lie and I don’t like it.”  So Hudes returned dramaturgically to North Philly and wrote about her stepfather’s bar, the play that became Daphne’s Dive.  If she strays from her dramaturgical comfort zone, it probably won’t be soon since she feels “there’s still more to go, . . . more depths to look into and explore.”

Hudes’s musical background, however, stays with her as a dramatist: she composes rhythmically—one interviewer writes, “She is a musician with a pen”—and there’s frequently music in her plays.  When she sits down to write, one of the first things in her process is choosing the music she’ll listen to while working; “Oftentimes it’s the playlist for the play I’m writing,” she says.  In fact, the music comes before the playwright sits down to write a word.  She says “My first thought is always what kind of music am I going to have in this play.  And I base the world, the language of the play, on that type of music.”  Hudes, for example, expressly chose three distinct musical styles for each play in the Elliot Trilogy: Western classics, jazz, Puerto Rican/Latin folk.  As Hudes was writing Daphne’s Dive, the fusion of Latin jazz and classical music of Michel Camilo, with which the playwright had been taken since she was a teen, was the music she listened to; ultimately she asked Camilo, whom Hudes had never met, to write the music for the play. 

The playwright has said that Daphne’s Dive began with the setting.  She explained that after working on the Elliot Trilogy, she wanted something with “longer scenes that had a little bit of breath to them.  I thought a bar was the perfect setting . . . .”  It’s plain Hudes also uses her family and friends as inspiration for her characters; her cousin, for example, was the basis for Elliot in the three plays about the Iraq War vet.  They’re significantly fictionalized for, as Alexis Soloski says in a New York Times profile of the writer, “each play is a delicate negotiation between fact and fiction, between the experiences of her relatives and the dramatic necessity of the play.”  Hudes explains that she puts more importance on “why their stories matter than what the particulars of the stories are.”  The playwright says of her own writing that it’s “very character-based” and that for her, “it starts with people and ends with people.” 

The origin of the story in Daphne’s Dive comes from something that happened to a cousin of the writer.  She “heard a child crying in the adjacent row home” and when she finally got into the house, she found “that the police had raided the place and the house was empty.  Except for a young girl, who . . . had been abandoned.”  Hudes’s cousin took the girl in until her parents got out of jail.  “I kept thinking about that girl,” said the playwright, “about hearing a kid cry through the walls.  I thought, ‘This girl is a catalyst that will change the life of a group of people.’”  Hudes explained the crux of her thought: “A jolt of empathy can jumpstart adults’ hearts.  The truth is, we’re hardened.  We simply are, it’s a survival tactic.  And then a jolt of empathy can remind us what matters.”  So, having set upon placing her story in a North Philly dive bar, the dramatist took this family incident, moved it from a row house to an apartment building above the bar, peopled it with characters based on her relatives and regulars at her stepfather’s bar, added the piano music of Michel Camilo, and composed her portrait of a community in microcosm.  As director Kail sees it, Hudes is writing “about evolving communities and the challenge of leaving a mark, of having a legacy.”

While Hudes herself might have been the model for young Ruby, the young girl who actually grows up in her adoptive mother’s bar, it seems that her stepfather, the entrepreneur who was active in the Puerto Rican community of Philadelphia, might have become the play’s Acosta, the businessman-turned-local politician.  Daphne, herself, seems to have been modeled in part on Hudes’s own mother, who, among other things, was an herbalist (Daphne chews aloe leaves constantly)—though some traits of her mother became part of Daphne’s sister’s character as well (Hudes’s mother grew up on a farm and sister Inez grows gourds on the lawn of her suburban home; she also talks frankly about sex, a characteristic Hudes attributed to her mother as well).  The composer Camilo himself became Daphne’s upstairs neighbor, whom we never meet but to whose piano-playing she awakens every morning and which is her companion though the day.  Daphne’s Dive itself, of course, is Hudes’s memory of her stepfather’s North Philly bar where she played after doing her homework while getting to know the regulars—some of whom might recognize themselves in Daphne’s customers.

As I think I’ve established, Daphne (Vanessa Aspillaga) is the owner of the “cheap corner bar” (as STC’s publicity has it) that bears her name, frequented by a diverse bunch of regulars.  Most, like Daphne, are Latinos from North Philadelphia—identified by Hudes as the Puerto Rican neighborhood.  There’s Pablo (Matt Saldivar), a Cuban-American painter who specializes in art inspired by people’s garbage, through which he digs to find stimulating subjects; believe it or not, Pablo gets a gallery show and starts to move up the art-world ladder.  Inez (Daphne Rubin-Vega) has married well and has moved on up to the ritzy suburban Main Line—though she sees no reason to discard her roots and insists on growing guiros (“more Puerto Rican than a crucifix on the rearview,” Inez boasts) in her yard—and revels in her chic clothes and posh lifestyle; she still stops in at Daphne’s bar, however, to keep in contact with her community.  Inez’s husband, Acosta (Carlos Gomez), is a successful businessman (with a slightly shady past which he’s outgrown) who makes a successful run for city council and then state senator.  Jenn (KK Moggie), an Asian-American originally from San Francisco, is a politically-engaged dancer and performance artist who stages colorful guerilla protests around the city in support of leftist causes; 50 years ago, she’d have been a hippie.  (Modeled by Hudes on Kathy Change, 1950-96, a performance artist and political activist who killed herself in an act of self-immolation on the University of Pennsylvania campus, I found Jenn’s character reminiscent of avant-garde—and onetime street—artist Yayoi Kusama.)  The only Anglo patron in Daphne’s Dive, Rey (Gordon Joseph Weiss), a Willie Nelson look-alike in scruffy jeans, long, graying hair, and a bandana around his head, scorns all possessions except his motorcycle (on which he paid Pablo to paint mermaids), spending his cash—the only payment he’ll accept for his work as a glazier—as quickly as he earns it; Rey and Acosta used to run together in their bad old days and still have brotherly affection for one another, irrespective of Acosta’s rise in social status.

Near the end of the first scene, when Pablo runs out back to pick through Daphne’s trash (which she’s forbidden him to do), he returns with a terrified 11-year-old African-American girl in his arms.  This is Ruby (Samira Wiley), abandoned when her parents were hauled off to jail in a raid that awakened Daphne during the night.  To escape the Philadelphia Department of Human Services, Ruby had jumped out the third-floor window and, scraped and bruised, hid behind the dumpster.  Daphne takes the little homeless girl in and eventually adopts her and Ruby becomes a mainstay of Daphne’s Dive—and the focal character of the play.

Ruby introduces each of the play’s five scenes by announcing her age, starting with the play’s first line: “I am 11.”  As Ruby ages from 11 to 15 to 20 to 25 and finally 29, we watch her grow into a young adult as the lives of her composite family and the changes among them and in the community outside are recounted inside Daphne’s Dive.  Ruby’s new family each gives her advice and support as she grows up, like all the barnyard fowl sharing brooding responsibilities for the Churkendoose egg.  There are triumphs—Pablo gets a gallery show; Acosta is elected to Philadelphia’s city council and then to Pennsylvania’s state senate, both celebrated at the bar—and tragedies—Acosta and Inez split up; Jenn dies in a spectacular way that echoes Kathy Change’s death, greatly affecting Ruby—but the life in the bar goes on; only Jenn leaves the fold.  In the last full scene—there’s a short epilogue that’s a flashback to Ruby at 11 that reveals a secret Daphne had kept from everyone else and might be an explanation of why she took so strongly to Ruby—Ruby has taken her adoptive mother’s place behind the bar, a signal that the world of Daphne’s Dive will continue into the next generation, just with a new Daphne.

Though I’d read the writer’s name for a few years, Daphne’s Dive is my first experience with a Hudes play.  My only intimation of what to expect was the New York Times review (I don’t read the other reviews in my round-up until after I’ve written my report) and I thought Christopher Isherwood was quite positive in all respects: the writing, directing, and acting.  Well, I’m here to tell you Daphne’s Dive was the longest 100 minutes I’ve sat through in a pretty long time!  As I said to Diana (who mostly agreed with me, but she’s always less forgiving than I am) when we’d left the theater (I didn’t feel like contending with anyone from the audience who might overhear me): I found everything about Daphne’s Dive artificial: the characters, the situation, the dialogue, the acting, the directing—even, to an extent, the set.  (The play covers 18 years, from 1994 to 2011, and not one thing in set designer Donyale Werle’s bar changes in all that time.  Even if Daphne never redecorates or renovates, things break and have to be replaced; electric signs burn out and new ones are brought in by the brewers, distillers, or distributors.  But apparently not in North Philly.)  I’ll go into detail in a bit, but I didn’t believe one moment of this play.  (In case you’re wondering: it’s supposed to be Realism, not stylized.  Or if it’s supposed to be stylized, the director and cast pull way too far back.)  

As for the writing, I’ll go into that in a moment, too, but I also said to Diana afterwards that I can’t believe this was written by a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright.  It comes close to amateurism, like an MFA (or maybe even BFA) playwriting student trying something she’s not ready to handle yet.  It also doesn’t seem to have a theme or point, though as a “slice of life,” it isn’t credible.  (Toast, by Brit playwright Richard Bean and on which I reported on 19 May, is a slice-of-life play, with no message or theme, but it was totally credible.)

And speaking of Toast, which was an excellent ensemble production, Daphne’s Dive’s supposed to be one, too—except it isn’t.  It’s a collection of seven actors—same number as Toast, coincidentally—who are each doing his or her own thing.  Where was director Kail in all this?  Many reviewers compared Daphne’s Dive to Cheers, the ’80s TV sitcom where the patrons and staff of the bar formed a sort of ad hoc family (which is what the characters of Toast did as well), but my analogy would be Robert Patrick’s Kennedy’s Children (Broadway, 1975) in which the bar drinkers are entirely unconnected to each other (by design, not bad acting or directing) and exist in their own cocoons.  Of course, Kennedy’s Children isn’t a very theatrically exciting play—a series of monologues, really.

Hudes said that the idea of Daphne’s Dive started with the setting, an evocation of her stepfather’s North Philly bar, and Donyale Werle has brought that to life in all its neighborhood comfort and warmth.  The place is worn and tattered, but in a friendly and welcoming way.  The mismatched tables, the barstools that include one with a torn seat mended with duct tape, the small strip of sidewalk just outside with the newspaper box (one wall of the bar is truncated so we can see outside) all add up to a kind of surrogate home—for some, a get-away; for others, a refuge.  That a gang of diverse folks, all with different connections to the neighborhood, would form a microcosmic community here is perfectly believable.  It’s importance to all of the group is demonstrated when Acosta and Inez watch the election returns in his first race on the TV with the long-broken speakers in the bar with the friends who knew him as a scrounger, rather than at an election headquarters with his campaign workers or in a reception hall with his well-wishers.  (That the set doesn’t change at all over the span of the play doesn’t diminish Werle’s fundamental achievement.)

The bar set’s lit by Betsy Adams with a light level just low enough to suggest Daphne’s Dive is only a few lumens above a Hernando’s Hideaway—not “a dark, secluded place” exactly, but not permanent daylight, either.  Nevin Steinberg’s sound is principally the piano music from the musician’s apartment upstairs—which, after the first scene when it’s introduced, is mostly used to cover the scene changes for the curtain-less and intermissionless production.  (The bar may be an eighth character in Daphne’s Dive, but the subliminal presence of Michel Camilo, despite Hudes’s insistence on his importance, never really rises to that level.  The playing merely remains background music.)  The character’s clothes, though, are much more significant and Toni-Leslie James’s designs are tailored (if you will) for each one’s personality and social standing out in the world (not in the bar, by the way: in there, everyone’s equal).  Acosta’s fitted suits, and Inez’s fashion wigs (by Robert-Charles Vallance), stylish shoes and dresses—she favors bright colors, too—tell the appropriate tales, just as Rey’s worn jeans and bandana or Jenn’s boho-theatrical get-ups do.

Director Kail, whose credits include not just In the Heights, his previous collaboration with Hudes, but also Miranda’s blockbuster hit, Hamilton, both at the Public Theater and on Broadway, does a good job of keeping the actors moving about the bar without making it look like a square dance.  Signature’s Courtyard Theater is configured as what an Off-Off-Broadway artistic director I knew called a “butterfly” stage: audience on two opposite sides of the square platform, which is somewhat more problematic than either the three-sided thrust or the all-around arena.  While one reviewer registered a complaint about his view of the actor speaking being blocked by another member of the company, I never had that problem from my fourth-row seat, one in from the “upstage” aisle.  Other aspects of the actors’ work, however, were more troublesome.  As I mentioned earlier, there was a lack of connection among the seven members of this impromptu family group.  I never really felt that they were as intimately linked as Hudes’s words told me they were.  Each character was well enough delineated, but it was as if they’d each rehearsed alone somehow and came together just for the performances.  (I keep going back to Toast, with which I had a different set of issues, but there was no question in my mind while watching that performance that those men had known each other for a long time.  Admittedly, most of that cast had been doing the play since 2014, which may account for some of that intimacy.)  In my experience, this deficiency is the director’s fault.

To the extent that the performances are partly at fault for the lackluster production, I also blame Kail for either sending the actors in the wrong direction or not pulling them out of a rabbit hole.  (It was my experience as an actor that when a cast has absent or inadequate direction, the actors will find their own paths, but each one will be individual.)  The clearest example I saw in Daphne’s Dive was Daphne Rubin-Vega’s Inez.  I’ve never found Rubin-Vega a mannered actor (though I confess that my experience of her work is limited to film and TV; I’d never seen her on stage before this), but in Hudes’s play, she flailed her arms and flapped her hands so much I thought she might soon lift off.  If this was a character choice, it didn’t communicate anything about Inez to me, and if it was just an acting tic, Kail ought to have damped it.  As it was, it became a  distraction.  Nothing else on the Linney stage was that obvious, but everyone seemed to be trying just a little too hard to put the diverse characters across with, as the saying goes, feeling.  It all came off as acting rather than behaving.  It may have been generated by one of the problems I see in Hudes’s writing, which I cover below, where she seems to have loaded—actually overloaded—each character with arbitrary traits which the actors had to scramble to evince.  Of course, I’m just guessing at the cause—but the effect was undeniable to me.

I certainly hope (and assume) that the quality of Hudes’s dramaturgy is better in her prize-winning play than I found it in Daphne’s Dive.  I can’t say that the playwright was more connected to the story of the troubled war vet than to the patrons of Daphne’s bar—after all, characters and situations in both plays are based on her extended family—but that would explain the feeling I had that this script was a slapdash effort.  My impression of Daphne’s Dive, in addition to what I said before, is that Hudes assembled a bunch of characteristics and incidents she liked and hadn’t already used (plus some, I believe, she had), and just lumped them together in a sort of omnibus play—a grab-bag of snips and scraps from her past.  She said that Ruby would act as a “catalyst that will change the life of a group of people,” but that never really seems to happen.  In fact, the one common trait with which Hudes imbued her characters is almost universal goodwill and decency: these people, far from being “hardened,” don’t need a “jolt of empathy” to hold out a hand to someone from their community who needs help.  Ruby’s a presence in the bar and the play, but no more than the other six characters; the technique of having her introduce each scene by announcing her age is a theatrical contrivance that doesn’t make Ruby the person in the play to whom the story happens, even if that’s what Hudes intended.  In fact, except for the moment she’s found behind the building, Ruby’s insertion into this on-going collective hardly affects them at all; no one seems to change what they do or say or how they do or say it because Ruby’s there now.  Wiley does a nice enough job portraying the character, but she’s by no means the mover of this drama.

Hudes’s language in Daphne’s Dive alternates between ordinary-sounding speech, inflected believably according to each character’s background and personality, and hifalutin, not-quite-poetic language that comes off as brittle and studied, the kind of phrases only a writer would compose.  (Sometimes lyrical Realism works great: Tennessee Williams did it and so did Ibsen, Chekhov, and Shaw; Neil Simon uses it, too, as did Lorraine Hansberry and Lanford and August Wilson.  But Hudes doesn’t seem to be in that company yet.)  The playwright also seems to have taken characteristics from some of her family and others and just scattered them around like grass seed, hoping that some will take root.  There are just too many quirks and personality traits for this little bunch of characters in such a small-scale play; it’s like the way I feel about the characters and situations.  (According to STC’s program for Daphne’s Dive, the play had a dramaturg.  I have no idea if he worked with Hudes on the composition of the play—she’s never mentioned using a dramaturg in any of her descriptions of her writing process and the program credit is for a “production dramaturg,” who usually works with the director and writer in rehearsals more than during the creation process—but it seems to me she could have used one in his editorial capacity.)

In its survey of 24 reviews, Show-Score reports that Daphne’s Dive received 67% positive notices against no negative ones and 33% mixed reviews for an average score of 73 (out of 100).  One of the two strongest reviews in the dailies was in Elisabeth Vincentelli’s New York Post omnibus column.  The Post reviewer dubbed the play a “dramedy” which “suggests a real sense of community, with people with whom you’d actually want to hang out.”  Vincentelli devoted the rest of her brief review to praising Samira Wiley’s “unassuming skill” and Daphne Rubin-Vega’s “best performance in years.”  In his equally short notice in New York’s Daily News, Joe Dziemianowicz reported that Hudes, who “writes about families forged by blood and makeshift means,” depicts “a group portrait that packs compassion but lacks cohesion.” 

Tied with the Post in Show-Score’s tally, Christopher Isherwood’s New York Times review described Daphne’s Dive as a “warm-spirited if loose-jointed new play” which “feels at times like a throwback to television comedies of an earlier era, the politically engaged Norman Lear years.”  The play’s characters, Isherwood affirmed, “may seem an oddly assorted bunch, but as we come to know them, their easygoing, genial interaction and interdependence come to seem natural,” demonstrating Hudes’s “supple feel for characterization and a wide-ranging sympathy for life’s waifs and strays.”  Not that the Times reviewer found in the play “entirely credible—or free of a sprinkling of sentimentality,” noting especially Jenn’s death.  Kail “displays once again a fine instinct for shaping ensemble work” and though Werle’s “nicely funky” set “divides the auditorium so that at times we may not be able to read the characters’ faces,” the Timesman promised “there’s never a point at which we don’t feel connected to them and their connections to one another.”  Isherwood had high praise for the actors: Vanessa Aspillaga’s Daphne “combines a certain dryness with submerged warmth,” KK Moggie’s Jenn “thankfully remains just this side of cloyingly whimsical,” and Matt Saldivar’s Pablo “radiates confidence.”  Rubin-Vega “zings out” Inez’s quips “with appealing élan” and Carlos Gomez’s Acosta “manages to project a swaggering ambition that nevertheless doesn’t obscure his instinctive sympathy.”  Of special note is Wiley’s “remarkable skill” in playing Ruby, particularly as the young woman in the middle scenes when, Isherwood felt, the actor’s “performance darkens in spirit as Ruby fights her way through her suffering.”  The review-writer acknowledged, “The play’s episodic structure can make it seem like, well, a series of television episodes plucked from different seasons,” but insisted that this isn’t a fault: “It’s more like high praise.”

The Guardian’s Alexis Soloski wrote that Daphne’s Dive “is about the ways in which we seek connection with the people around us, sometimes finding it, sometimes failing it,” like her earlier plays, but the “structure of Daphne’s Dive, as directed by Hamilton hotshot Thomas Kail, is unhelpfully looser than in past plays.”  Soloski complained that “the characterizations feel a little schematic,” but advised, “These are not stock figures,” though they’re “not as richly textured as they might be.”  Also, observed the Guardian reviewer, “Hudes’ extraordinary sincerity . . . can sometimes come across as naiveté, although it isn’t quite.”  Soloski added that “the plotting and characterizations don’t quite prop up the bar”; however, Hudes’s work has “an unassailable heart” which Soloski asserted is a manifestation of “a fierce compassion for the people she creates and an equally ardent love for the ethnically and culturally diverse city that raised her.”  The review-writer felt that the bar isn’t exactly a “melting pot,” but “it is the rum punch that Daphne offers, in which the separate flavors mingle, but remain somehow distinct.”  She concluded, “It’s worth downing.”  In the New Yorker’s “Goings On About Town” column, the reviewer remarked that Hudes “hews slavishly to the tavern-drama format: throw a bunch of quirky individuals together in a small room, pour a few drinks, and let ’em talk.”  The columnist complained, “The characters don’t so much converse as trade exposition, and even the surprise reveals are predictable,” and concluded, “This unhappy family displays a ponderous lack of imagination.”

Marilyn Stasio summed up Daphne’s Dive as “a sweet play, but it doesn’t have much heft” in Variety.  With praise for the actors, Stasio dismissed Hudes’s intimation that Ruby “will cleanse their souls and change their lives,” saying (as I did) that since the bar’s patrons are such “decent folks to begin with,” the play’s “plot line is a non-starter.”  Despite Hudes’s “juicy dialogue,” a play “without a plot or something of consequence at stake . . . slips into the conventional vein of those static ensemble pieces set in diners, barbershops, hair salons, and bars” and even Kail’s “joyful inventiveness” can’t “pump some life into that static genre format.”  Concluded Stasio, “Barroom plays are fun to visit, but you don’t really want to live there.”  Time Out New York’s David Cote, calling Daphne’s Dive an “episodic narrative,” described the play as a “slow-burning, vibrantly sketched portrait of a scruffy North Philly booze joint run by love-scarred Daphne.”  The man from TONY wrote that Aspillaga “anchors” the play as Daphne and is “[s]weetly centered yet able to project panic and terror in a heartbeat”; as Ruby, Wiley is “heartbreaking.” 

In Entertainment Weekly, Melissa Rose Bernardo complained that Daphne’s Dive “could use a little more length and a lot more exposition.”  Nonetheless, the EW writer promised, “there’s plenty of fodder for a boozy barroom drama.”  The Hollywood Reporter’s Frank Scheck stated in his “Bottom Line”: “Like the drinks served at the play’s dive-bar setting, not very potent.”  Noting, “Plays set in bars are a time-honored theatrical tradition,” Scheck affirmed that they “usually have more depth than” Daphne’s Dive.  “Not that there’s a dearth of drama going on in” the play, reported the HR reviewer, but “it all speeds by so quickly—and paradoxically, sluggishly—that the play feels like a sketch for a more fully worked-out drama that hasn’t yet been written.”  Scheck explained that the playwright “displays a strong feel for her well-drawn characters and their hermetically sealed milieu.  But that doesn’t prevent the play from feeling both overstuffed and undernourished” and “too much of the dialogue feels forced and rambling.”  While Wiley is “particularly moving” as Ruby, Kail has directed “evocatively,” and Werle’s bar setting is “exactly the sort of place you wouldn’t mind ducking into,” Scheck warned “that the price of a drink includes a lot of listening to other people’s problems.”

Brian Scott Lipton on Theatre Pizzazz asserted that Hudes puts “alternately poetic and fiercely realistic words” in the mouths of her “well-drawn characters” in Daphne’s Dive.  Director Kail “lets the piece unfold at its own pace, which may feel a little too leisurely for the show’s first 15 minutes.  But the momentum builds” as the play progresses.  Lipton complimented the “crackerjack cast” and recommended, “So when theater this real is presented to us, we have only one choice: drink it in!”  CurtainUp’s Elyse Sommer described Hudes’s play as “a believable but hardly a feel-good portrait of an era,” though she warned, “But don’t expect this neatly constructed forward and backward trajectory to wind things up happily.”  Instead, the CU review-writer said, the playwright “dives into these characters[’] pasts and presents, pain and passions” to show “a group of people trying—not always successfully—to help each other to celebrate good times and deal with the sad ones.”  Sommer’s sole complaint was that the plays “flow would have been improved by tightening the script to lose about ten minutes” off its hour-and-40-minute length, even though, with “Kail’s direction, the cast taps into the play’s most powerful moments.”  The CU notice also included praise for Werle’s set, James’s costumes, Vallance’s wigs and hairstyles, and Camilo’s musical compositions.

On Broadway World, Michael Dale found Hudes’s writing in Daphne’s Dive “warm and inviting” and added that director  Kail’s “very strong cast makes this new drama worth a visit,” with Werle’s set, which is “terrifically accurate,” and Camilo’s “funky” score, “a snazzy mood-enhancer.”  Dale noted, however, “Without a continuous plot, DAPHNE'S DIVE is more of a portrait of lives realized through a collage of events.”  Arpita Mukherjee asserted that Daphne’s Dive, “a microcosm of the ‘real America,’” is “a testament to the need for diversity in theatre.” on Stage Buddy.  Hudes’s “writing explores each character’s story,” but “does not always delve deeply”; the “ensemble is top-notch,” however, and “rises to the challenge.”  Our Stage Buddy concluded, “Hudes’ latest work is an unapologetic and brave look at America becoming.”  NY Theatre Guide’s Jane Dentinger wrote that Kail’s direction “is seamless” and Werle “has provided a perfectly weathered bar,” lit with “just the right seedy tones” by Betsy Adams.  Hudes’s “writing is wonderful,” asserted Dentinger, but added that “much of her sly humor is lost here amidst domestic and political polemics, which makes some of the performances seem forced.”  The cyber reviewer, though, ended by saying, “Still there is fun to be had in Daphne Rubin-Vega’s sly turn as Inez.” and “Carlos Gomez, whose charisma grounds his Acosta in something more than sheer ambition”; but “it’s Samira Wiley’s tender and passionate rendering of Ruby. . . that gives this play its heart and meaning.”

Tulis McCall of New York Theatre Guide (not to be confused with NY Theatre Guide, above—yeah, I know: one of the sites should get a more distinct name!) suggested that Daphne’s Dive “is one of those plays . . . that makes you wonder if anyone read it before they decided to produce it.”   For one thing, the cast of characters is “excellent,” with “[l]ots of potential,” providing “all the ingredients for a feast,” but McCall found that “while Hudes does try to connect the dots, these people’s paths cross with only the barest of connections.”  The “fine cast has to deal with inconsistencies and missing information” and the play ends up being “a surface offering.  This play told me about these people but never let me in.”  McCall offered a simile for her Daphne’s Dive experience:

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.

On Deadline, Jeremy Gerard dubbed the STC production “fine work” in one of Show-Score’s highest-rated reviews, affirming that “Hudes has a fine grasp of the friction created by the social tectonic plates that shift according to the waves of gentrification and governance.”  Gerard also reported, “It’s all beautifully calibrated under the direction of Thomas Kail . . .  in Donyale Werle’s terrific environmental set, atmospherically lit by Betsy Adams.”  The Deadliner added that Toni-Leslie James’s costumes “are also character-perfect” and he complimented the acting as “all of a piece,” especially lauding Wiley as “outstanding.”  Hayley Levitt reported that thanks to Hudes and Kail, Daphne’s Dive “breathes the . . . slightly gritt[y], air of a flawed yet united community” on TheaterMania.  Levitt complained that, while the relationship of Daphne and Ruby “is by far the most compelling thread of” Hudes’s play, “we get only an occasional scene for them to illustrate their . . . bond.”  “It’s difficult to find the eye of the storm in Hudes’ busy web of characters and story,” explained the TM reviewer, adding, “As much as the ancillary characters help define the community . . ., their sheer multitude makes it difficult to invest in any one journey.”  In the end, however, Levitt found that “Hudes, Kail, and their accomplished cast have made Daphne's Dive more than the sum of its parts.” 

[For those born too late to know about The Churkendoose, it was a children’s story published as a book by Ben Ross Berenberg in 1946 (Wonder Books).  A year later, Decca Records issued a recording of Ray Bolger narrating and singing the story and lyrics of Berenberg, set to music of Alec Wilder, played by an orchestra directed by Mitchell (Mitch) Miller.  Just about every Baby Boomer (like, ahem, me) grew up with this tale of a peculiar bird hatched from a mysterious egg on which all the barnyard fowl—a chicken, a turkey, a duck, and a goose—took turns sitting.  When it was hatched, the bird was a combination of all four, hence, a “churkendoose.”  But the new bird was odd-looking and was turned away by the others—until a fox came lurking around the coop.  The lesson of the story is that sometimes differences can be a good thing and “it all depends on how you  look at things.”]

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