If you're like me, you might wince at the first taste of Aubergine, Julia Cho's new play about death and food at Playwrights Horizons. As with food, some aspects of theatrical taste are hardwired and inexplicable. Still, it's difficult to imagine how anyone could enjoy listening to a woman named Diane (Jessica Love) in a giant earth-tone cardigan humblebrag about her husband's inheritance and food tourism hobby for the first 10 minutes of the show. Her vivid descriptions of a hot pastrami sandwich ("an explosion of hot, buttery bread and meat") are likely to make you hungry or nauseous, depending on your predilections (either way, it is advisable to eat before any play this food-centric). Beyond this unnecessary framing device (we don't see this woman again until the very end), the play isn't half bad. At times, it is insightful and moving, although Cho could make it even more so by taking a meat cleaver to all the fat in the second act.
The story is about Ray (Tim Kang), a chef caring for his soon-to-die father (Stephen Park), a hard-nosed Korean-American immigrant with a disdain for the culinary arts. Naturally, their relationship was a fraught one, with father and son often clashing over money and career. But Ray has one final opportunity to impress his father when his uncle (Joseph Steven Yang) arrives from Korea bearing a turtle and a family recipe for soup.
In the first act, Cho impressively cuts through the mythologizing clichés that so often accompany stories about death ("He was a great man," "I don't know how we'll go on without him," yada yada). Instead, she shows dad for the skinflint jerk that he most certainly was (and Park plays the role with relish). "He didn’t have many friends," Ray says and immediately corrects, "Any friends." Unfortunately, Cho surrenders to the impulse to rationalize this unpleasantness in the second act, allowing her characters to naval-gaze for a little too long. Sure, it's important to understand why dad acted the way he did (he had some very good reasons), but it doesn’t quite feel necessary to give Ray so many lengthy soul-searching monologues to get that point across.
"We hold the hands of the dying. But we are not the one holding their hands. They are the ones holding ours," says Lucien (Michael Potts), the wise hospice care worker. As Cho circles the runway, looking for a profound place to land, we have the overwhelming feeling that we've seen and heard this all before — perhaps on an Oprah Winfrey special about bereavement.
Luckily, the show benefits from excellent performances: Sue Jean Kim is hilarious as Ray's no-nonsense ex-girlfriend, especially when we see her deftly soften his bluster while translating to his Uncle (unlike Ray, we enjoy the benefit of supertitles projected on the upstage wall). When he's not forced to dispense pithy bits of wisdom, Potts actually gives a very touching performance as Lucien, a former African refugee. We can only imagine the terrible things he's seen when he explains his love of his job: "A peaceful death: this is a wealth beyond compare."
Leading the cast, the stocky and stoic Kang is completely believable as Ray, a man who, in his own words, has "been burning it at both ends for as long as I can remember." With a steely resolve interrupted by sudden bursts of anger and profanity, we never question that this man works in a kitchen or that he is the child of immigrants.
While director Kate Whoriskey has led the cast to credible performances of highly specific characters, the design is a lot more aimless. Derek McLane's set of varnished wood planks looks like an exurban party deck: Offstage is masked by what appears to be privacy fences and the central fixture (two semicircular walls on tracks) look like an above-ground pool with they come together. It feels like an elaborate misfire.
Also, Cho fills her script with colorful and occasionally emotional descriptions of food and how eating dynamics can impact a family. Considering that taste and smell are so intimately tied to memory, Whoriskey misses a golden opportunity for olfactory design. She could have infused the theater with the smell of a simmering broth or a sizzling steak. Instead, all we get is the stale whiff of a stage cigarette.
Between the smart acting, thoughtful prose, and underwhelming production, Aubergine is the theatrical equivalent of a functional yet unmemorable meal: It might fill you up, but it is entirely devoid of flavor.