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Theatre in Review: Daphne's Dive (Signature Theatre)

Matthew Salidvar, Daphne Rubin-Vega. Photo: Joan Marcus

As often happens in neighborhood bars -- and plays about them -- the denizens of Daphne's Dive form an extended family. Quiara Alegría Hudes' play chronicles tavern owner Daphne and her friends and relations over the course of 18 years; it's a tangled saga that involves family secrets, personal betrayals, and the background of a changing North Philadelphia neighborhood. It's a lot to take in, and it can't be said that Hudes has entirely mastered the chronicle format as, too often, the really good stuff tends to happen offstage.

Daphne is a youngish woman from Puerto Rico who has made her bar not just her workplace but her home and fortress against a potentially hostile world. Her regulars include her sister, Inez, who is as glamorous as Daphne is plain; Acosta, Inez's husband, a local businessman and, later, politician; Jenn, a kooky, but politically committed, Asian-American performance artist; Pablo, an uncompromising visual artist who specializes in making pieces out of other people's garbage; and Rey, a middle-aged glass-cutter and biker. And then there's Ruby, who, at the beginning of the play in 1994, is 11, when she tumbles out of the window of the apartment above the bar following a police raid on her family's apartment.

Ruby is adopted by Daphne -- under circumstances that are not made clear until near the play's end -- and grows up under the collective eye of the bar crew. Hudes has provided plenty of tart commentary for her characters. Inez, worried that Daphne isn't providing the adolescent Ruby with adequate sex education, warns her sister, "Fifteen is the new 40." Daphne, dismissing the early marriage she never got around to telling Ruby about, says, "The ceremony outlasted the marriage. A Catholic Mass so long time started to reverse on itself." Pablo, surveying the college-age Ruby, who has curated an exhibition of his works as a school project, says, "You are a twenty-year-old abuela. Shuffling around, sprinkling pixie dust, asking nothing in return." Responding to an inquiry about her wild public performances, Jenn replies that she is "not that kind of dancer. Liberty Bell on Sundays. Love Statue during the week. University of Pennsylvania, Art Museum steps. It's my own personal Contract with America. Not that Newt Gingrich approves."

As time passes, Acosta becomes a powerful state senator and his marriage to Inez undergoes major stress; Ruby grows into an idealistic and troubled young woman; and Daphne and Jenn have a brief fling. The play centers on the complicated relationship between Daphne and Ruby, both of whom share dark histories of abuse, but in some ways the turning point involves a shocking act committed by Jenn, who has become increasingly disillusioned with the world as her flamboyant performative style of politics -- she sometimes seems like the last yippie -- comes to seem increasingly irrelevant.

A great deal more happens -- more than Hudes can comfortably juggle -- and the characters are forever burdened with bringing us updates on events taking place offstage. Often, what we see on stage doesn't totally jibe with what we're hearing about. Especially as played by Vanessa Aspillaga, Daphne seems rather too placid, given the terrible events she has survived. Jenn and Acosta have a major falling-out when she accuses him of abandoning the community to become a big player in the state legislature: "Anyone remember the guy who fed the homeless all winter long? Who cuffed himself to the precinct steps? Who took my hand and marched at my side?" Actually, no, because this is the first that we're hearing about it. (The fact that K.K. Moggie, as Jenn, gives the one false performance is probably not her fault; the character is a thin and whimsical conception who can't bear the weight the tragedy that follows in her wake.) Other shattering events occur with little preparation and no aftereffects: In one scene, Ruby is an alcoholic; in the next, she is clean, sober, and running the bar. In another scene, she pours out her rage at Daphne for saving her and not her brother, Jonathan, who is disabled. After that, the topic is dropped, never to be brought up again. When, near the end, the action jumps back in time to reveal terrible truths about Daphne and Ruby, the impact is surely more diffuse than Hudes intends.

Still, Daphne's Dive is never dull, the people are likable, and one always wants to know the latest news about them. If Thomas Kail's direction doesn't get at nearly all of the pain and thwarted love embedded in the script, he has overseen an extremely genial company. Carlos Gomez's Acosta achieves a genuine poignancy as his life starts to unravel under the pressure of his career. Daphne Rubin-Vega brings her natural wit to the role of Inez. Matt Saldivar and Gordon Joseph Weiss, as Pablo and Rey, are as friendly a pair of barflies as one could wish.

Daphne's Dive is worth seeing for Samira Wiley alone; her Ruby ages almost two decades without the help of costumes or makeup. It's a remarkable performance; she seemingly wills us to see the profound changes taking place inside her. Best known for her television work, she more than holds her own with a company of leading New York pros.

Since Daphne's bar is a world unto itself, it's good that Donyale Werle is on hand to provide one of her impeccably detailed set designs, which is lit with seamless skill by Betsy Adams. Toni-Leslie James' costumes might have provided us a better sense of changing times, but they suit each character well. Nevin Steinberg's sound design provides fine reinforcement for Michel Camilo's jazzy piano music.

A visit to Daphne's Dive may be more pleasant than powerful, but it makes for a reasonably lively night out; as theatrical cocktails go, however, it has a few too many ingredients to make a strong impression. -- David Barbour

(23 May 2016)

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