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A CurtainUp Review

We hold the hands of the dying. But we are not the one holding their hands. They are the ones holding ours. — Lucien
Sue Jean Kim and Tim Kang (Photo: Joan Marcus)
The title of Julia Cho's new play Aubergine derives from the more beautiful sounding French name for eggplant. The purple skinned vegetable is just one meaningful food ingredient in this emotion-packed play. There's a pastrami sandwich on buttered toast, a medicinal turtle soup, a bowl of mulberries.

For playwright-Chef Cho, food is a a lens that allows her to take a close-up look at the way shared and prepared meals trigger pleasant and not so pleasant memories and self-contemplation. It's a lens wide enough to explore issues of death and dying, love and forgiveness, as well as one's immigrant roots. Love, Loss and What We Ate would have been a more what it's all about title but less intriguing and in keeping with the playwright's often lyrical observations.

Aubergine, originally commissioned by the Berkely Repertory Theater, arrives at Playwrights Horizons' main stage after a 6-year playwriting lull that followed following several very productive : The Architecture of Loss in 2004 at New York Theater Workshop. . . BFE in 2005 also at Playwrights, but at their smaller Peter Sharpe theater. . . Durango (my own favorite) in 2006 at the Public Theater. . . The Piano Teacher in 2007 at the Vineyard Theater (also directed by Kate Whoriskey and with a set by Derek McLane). . . in 2010 The Language Archive at the Roundabout's Laura Pels Theater.

All of these plays marked Cho as a gifted emerging playwright. Though not flawless, all showcased her flair for leavening dark, thought provoking themes with generous dashes of humor. And, except The Piano Teacher and The Language Archives were linked by having a Southwest setting and refreshingly digging into the lives of as yet not much written about Korean-Americans.

With Aubergine Cho returns to her exploration of Korean-Americans' "Koreanness." And, while set in an unnamed large American city rather than the Southwest, her characters unpack a lot of pain during the course of a couple of hours, but also manage to make us laugh quite a bit.

Since this is Cho's first full-length play in six years it also ends a long stretch of her feeling emptied out of ideas, and/or unable to explore deeply personal issues. That's why, according to an interview with Playwrights Horizons' artistic director Tim Sanford at the company website, the production that just had its official opening came together piecemeal — beginning as a piece featuring just Ray, a disengaged from life and love chef, and Lucien the nurse caring for his terminally ill father.

Bit by bit the cast and story have grown into a buffet-sized theatrical meal. Ray's girl friend Cornelia and a non-English speaking uncle from Korea are now also at the dying man's bedside. In addition, there's Diane, who introduces the food business in a long introductory monologue. Her character is seeingly (Spoiler alert: note that "seemingly") disconnected from the main focus on death and dying.

A situation in which a dying, comatose man is center stage durang most of its play isn't exactly the stuff of must see dramas but Kate Whoriskey directs sensitively and without rushing things. She draws equally sensitive performances from the six actors,.

Tim Kang convincingly captures the way Ray has shut himself off and just as convincingly lets him reconnect with everyone and everything he was ready to abandon. Sue Jean Kim as persuasively irate as Cornelia but not too much so not to step in as interpreter between Ray and his non-English speaking Uncle (an engaging Joseph Steven Yang).

The monologues that are integral to Cho's style even include one for Stephen Parks as Ray's comatose father (Stephen Parks) who also gets a chance to get off his deathbed for a flashback that reveals much about the strained father-son relationship. Michael Potts is excellent as the play's wisest and most sympathetic character, the nurturing care giver Lucien. Jessica Love does double duty in a minor part and as the "foodie" Diane.

The production values are, as always in this handsome theater, outstanding, especially Derek McLane's slick revolving set which smoothly accommodates a variety of locations. But while the scenes featuring the uncle's Korean dialogue as translated by Cornelia are amusing and enlightening, the English text projected on the wall is too small for anyone not sitting in the front rows, even with 20-20 vision, to be able to read. Then again, maybe we're not intended to be able to read them as the language difference mirrors the gap in our communicating even with those who speak the same language — a gap that we need to bridge before it's too late.

And so, while one can live with that undersized projected dialogue a flaw that can't be reasoned away is that the playwright has overstuffed Aubergine's menu. She makes her points too often and for too long which tends to rob the experience of a good deal of its flavor and energy. Some verbal fat trimmed off all those monologues and tightning all those flashbacks could easily end things a half hour sooner. I would also add this caveat: Despite the opportunities to laugh this is not an easy play to watch. While you can make a delicious turtle soup even without killing a turtle, there's no bowl of soup to stave off death. It's part of Life's menu.

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Aubergine by Julia Cho
Directed by Kate Whoriskey
Cast: Tim Kang (Ray), Sue Jean Kim (Cornelia), Jessica Love (Diane/Hospital Worker), Stephen Park (Ray's Father), Michael Potts (Lucien), Joseph Steven Yang (Uncle)
Scenic design by Derek McLane
Costume design by Jennifer Moeller
Lighting design by Peter Kaczorowski
Running Time: 2 hours and 10 minutes, including intermission
Playwrights Horizons' Mainstage Theater 416 West 42nd Street (212) 279-4200
From 8/19/16; opening 9/12/16; closing 10/02/16.
Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7PM, Thursdays and Fridays at 8PM, Saturdays at 2:30 PM & 8PM and Sundays at 2:30 PM & 7:30 PM.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 9/10/16 press matinee

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