Sunday, May 22, 2016

Off-Broadway Reviews—“Daphne’s Dive" and "A Better Place”

Daphne’s Dive
Written by Quiara Alegría Hudes; directed by Thomas Kail
Performances through June 12, 2016
Signature Theatre, Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street, New York, NY

A Better Place
Written by Wendy Beckett; directed by Evan Bergman
Performances through June 11, 2016
Duke on 42nd Street, 229 West 42nd Street, New York, NY

Samira Wiley in Daphne's Dive (photo: Joan Marcus)

In her sometimes affecting but mostly scattershot Daphne’s Dive, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes follows the denizens of a local Philly bar over the course of 18 years, but their lives, loves, and even deaths have little resonance or dramatized with scant insight, despite flashes of wit and humor.

We meet Daphne, hard-working owner-proprietor of the eponymous bar; her flaunting, successful sister Inez and her husband, rising local politician Acosta; three regulars, provocative performance artist Jenn, painter Pablo and ancient biker Rey; and Ruby, an 11-year-old black girl adopted by Daphne after she was (literally) found in a dumpster after jumping out a window to escape her family’s eviction.

The play jumps forward through the years—Ruby intones, “I am 15,” “I am 20,” etc., to situate where we are—and the lives of this septet become ever more fractured, complicated, even loving (Daphne and Jenn begin an unlikely romance). But Hudes too often cuts corners: after a tender scene between Daphne and Jenn, for example, the latter’s disappearance from the play is handed so clumsily that it hovers over the rest of the drama, to its ultimate detriment. 

More foolhardy is what feels like a tacked-on epilogue: a flashback to when Ruby was 11 and she and Daphne say what might have been their final goodbye (before Daphne adopts her). Its stiltedness is more the playwright’s fault than two characters searching for things to say. That ever-resourceful director Thomas Kail is unable to fully join the disparate strands of this memory play together, even as it’s enacted on Donyale Werle’s wonderfully dingy bar set and acted with forcefulness by the entire cast, especially Vanessa Aspillaga, who makes an intensely sympathetic Daphne, and Samira Wiley, whose Ruby is wounded but beautifully alive.

Jessica DiGiovanni in A Better Place (photo: Jenny Anderson)

Apartment envy is a fact of life in Manhattan, and Wendy Beckett’s A Better Place tackles it with all the finesse of a ‘70s sitcom filled with caricatures, however funny and accurate parts of it are.

Gay couple Les and Sel live in a rent-controlled one-bedroom, and Les is transfixed by the ultra-rich, seemingly perfect family in their modern, airy apartment across the street: he always watches what’s going on, which includes mom Mary, dad John and daughter Carol, who brings home real-estate brokers for sex laden with brokerage verbiage to get her off.

This is all OK as far as it goes, and Beckett finds plentiful, if easy, humor in these absurd situations, especially when it comes out that the one-percenters are not really as affluent as they seem—both financially and personally; but how the two sides finally get together is brought about in such a painfully contrived way that the final scenes come across as rather desperate in their attempt to join belly laughs and deeper meaning.

The performances are smartly pitched just this side of parody by director Evan Bergman, who otherwise has problems reining in the play’s episodic nature as it jumps back and forth between apartments: best in a game cast is Jessica DiGiovanni, who provides an amusingly flirtatious portrait of a millennial bimbo who needs to hear ever more florid descriptions of pricey apartments to have an orgasm.

The stunning set is by David L. Arsenault: the two apartments are shown in all their realistic glory on either side of the stage, with a metaphorical chasm in between: the lived-in, rent-controlled brownstone is dark and stuffy; and the modern multi-million dollar one all bright and airy. That more is said through the set than through the characters ends up dragging A Better Place down.

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