Off Broadway Reviews
If you're of the opinion that such a concept could not possibly flourish within, let alone drive, a theatre piece, Aubergine is ready to prove you wrong. Julia Cho's beautiful and immensely sensitive new play at Playwrights Horizons turns entirely on this idea, and doesn't attempt to hide its intentions. Its plot is, quite simply, about a middle-age man dealing with the impending death of his father, who is forced to confront the uneasy relationship they've long shared and try to mend it with food he can't force the bedridden man to follow; and between-scene interludes look at the critical role food, ranging from pastrami sandwiches to potato soup to bowls of mulberries, have played in their lives. Ultimately, however, it becomes about much morewho we are, how we deal with grief, and how we move onand that makes this more timeless than a flawless chocolate chip cookie recipe.
In many ways, Aubergine (that's the continental word for "eggplant") functions as a companion piece to Cho's earlier play, The Language Archive, which upon its 2010 New York premiere through the Roundabout Theatre Company announced itself as a top contender for the best play of the decade. (It's still in the running, too.) Both deal with the fashioning and mending of emotional rifts in a universe of fantastical realism (or is that realistic fantasy?), explore how communication canand probably shouldbe conducted on levels beyond those mere words can touch, and leave you with the shivering sense that there's always another, better way to be your truest self. And, though both are sad, they're leavened with coruscating comedy to remind you that even tragedy is never an all-black affair.
Almost immediately, the uncle (Joseph Steven Yang) arrives, and although his grasp of English is nonexistent, he bears a recipe that he's positive will change his brother's fortunesand who better to make it than Ray, a chef who's lost his taste for the work? The soup does not sound promising, at least to the Western palate (turtle is a key component), but it meant a lot to Ray's dad once upon a time. And we eventually learn that it's responsible, directly or otherwise, for the lives that all three men have built on opposite ends of the world.
Cho knows better than to make this an ingredient chase, thoughwhat everyone wants and needs cannot be found the shelves of even the most exotic grocery store. She focuses instead on chronicling Ray's own maturation, from a boy at play ("You're just this little kid who takes out all the toys and then changes his mind and doesn't clean up and goes," Cornelia tells him during their first meeting after a long absence) to a man longing for his role model's appreciation (Ray made Dad an 18-course tasting menu that could elicit no more praise than "interesting") to a true adult possessing an infinitely deeper understanding of the personal and familial history that's brought him to where he is. And that's a truly inspiring journey, as Ray investigates old bonds, forges new ones, and discovers gifts he didn't know he hadgifts that end up transforming the lives of others as the gift of that soup recipe does his own.
Kang is superb at embodying this, projecting bottomless depths of feeling from behind Ray's stony façade, and imbuing with myriad complexities a man who would likely confess to his own one-dimensionality. But all of his cast mates are excellent, too, with Kim expertly layering affection and frustration, Park conveying many flavors of anguish with astonishingly few words, Yang gripping your attention despite his character speaking at most half a dozen words in English, and Michael Potts (as a caring and wise hospice aid worker) and Jessica Love (as a woman on whom Ray has a profound effect) rounding out the company with brio. Kate Whoriskey's direction is unassuming but vivid, using Derek McLane's imagination-driven homey set, Peter Kaczorowksi's enveloping lighting, and M.L. Dogg's sound to weave us in and out of everyone's hearts, minds, and memories.
No one can fully halt the flagging of the pacing that occurs during the long stretches when Cornelia and Ray's uncle speak entirely in Korean; these go on for minutes, and don't say much that isn't expressed in other places in the script. And as touching as the play is at its finale, it stumbles through a series of second-act scenes that make it seem as if Cho wasn't sure of the best route to get to her destination. The play isn't by any accounting longjust over two hoursbut it could probably be a bit leaner.
Even so, there's so much to chew on here that the occasional misstep barely registers. From family to faith to redemption to, of course, food, Cho deconstructs and dissects every conceivable element of who we are and how we got here until she has painted a sprawling portrait of humanity from the inside out. Although most of us won't have an experience exactly equivalent to that Ray or his father did, we can all relate to the troubles, the misunderstandings, the laughs, and the meals they shared along the waybecause we've all had our own, too. Just as the smell of a cherished childhood dish can bring back waves of recollections, so too will Aubergine, the theatrical equivalent of Ray's 18-course tasting menu. But it's way more than interestingit's one of the most gorgeous and unforgettable plays of the year.