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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
Hudes' "dive" is set in the North Philadelphia neighborhood where she grew up. The event that begins the journey of bar owner Daphne and her activist and artist friends and relations is an FBI raid of a family living in the apartment above the bar. The children are taken along with their parents — all, that is, except eleven-year-old Ruby (movingly played by Samira Wiley, best known for her running role in Orange Is the New Black). The emotionally reserved Daphne (powerfully portrayed by Vanessa Aspillaga) adopts her. The godparents are Daphne's sister Inez (Daphne Rubin-Vega fresh off her riveting solo perfomance in Empana Loca ) and her husband Acosta (a well-cast Carlos Gomez), an upwardly mobile local businessman and community activist.
And so, Ruby is pretty much raised in a bar. Additional nurturing comes from financial support from her god parents as well as these influential bar regulars: Pablo (a touching Matt Saldivar), the artist who found her as he went through her jailed parents garbage (discarded items being his artistic inspirational base material). . . Rey (an impressively understated Gordon Joseph Weiss), an aging biker who works for Acosta. . . Jenn (KK Moggie bringing the required passion to a complex character), a passionately free-spirited and self-destructive performance artist.
Jenn's intense bond with Daphne is tragically broken and has a detrimental ripple effect on Ruby's future and her relationship with Daphne. Acosta's election, while initially forging the group's tight bonds, also has its tragic aftermath, including the Acosta-Inez marriage.
To help the audience clarify the way this human tapestry is used to explore the effect of memories and the changes wrought by time's passing and changes, each scene begins with Ruby announcing her age. Each one is a 5-year jump forward, with the last returning us to the 11-year-old.
But don't expect this neatly constructed forward and backward trajectory to wind things up happily for all these people. Ms. Hudes is not that kind of writer. To put a metaphoric spin on her title, she dives into these characters pasts and presents, pain and passions. The result is a believable but hardly a feel-good portrait of an era showing a group of people trying — not always successfully — to help each other to celebrate good times and deal with the sad ones.
As the play's characters regularly reunite during the six intermissionless scenes for holidays and less celebratory events, so Daphne's Bar reunites Ms. Hudes and Thomas Kail who first worked together as librettist and director of Lyn Manuel Miranda's In the Heights.
Under Mr. Kail's direction, the cast taps into the play's most powerful moments. He's also seen to it that the actors movements reflect the need to play to the theater's set-up which has the audience seated on either side of the stage. While an intermission would interrupt the script's flow, that flow would have been improved by tightening the script to lose about ten minutes.
Donnyvale Werle's simple set accommodates the scenes outside the bar and, even in a different location for the Ruby-at-20 scene. The forward jumps in time are visually supported by Toni-Leslie James's costumes and the women's hair styles. Since an unseen piano player is repeatedly mentioned and is also one of the play's actual inspirational sources, Michel Camilo's incidental musical is an especially apt and enjoyable production element.
In the feature on Daphne's Dive in the Signature's magazine, Signature Stories, Ms. Hudes acknowledges Paula Vogel, her Brown University mentor. Vogel, herself a Pulitzer winner, is probably in town for the New York production of her own exciting new play, Indecent which opens at the Vineyard Theater in the same week as Daphne's Dive. If so, she'll no doubt make time to visit the Signature and see what her mentoring has wrought. In a bit of fortuitous scheduling I saw the pupil and her teacher's plays on two consecutive days.
Note: With Kail having become a red-hot director as the helmer of the behemoth hit Hamilton, the lustre of the Hudes Pulitzer, and Daphne Rubin-Vega to lend a starry name to the ensemble, Daphne's Dive has already extended a week beyond the scheduled run supported by the always welcome $25 ticket grant.