It’s just an ordinary American eggplant, but if you call it aubergine it will taste better. Or so claims Lucien (Michael Potts), the African-born hospice nurse who looks after the hero’s dying father in Julia Cho’s twisty, quirky, and frequently touching new play named for the aforesaid vegetable. Food, which sustains life, and death, which removes us from it, are the dueling forces in Aubergine‘s theatrical dialectic. They never exactly lock horns, however: Ray (Tim Kang), the hero, is a Korean-American master chef who has temporarily given up his career; his father (Stephen Park), dying from complications of cirrhosis, lies prone in bed, unable to take in more than an occasional sip of water.
Though watching a thirty-something go through the stages of grief while his parent dies may summon up all too many memories of predecessor works, Cho’s wide-ranging imagination and her inventive theatricality, ably seconded by Kate Whoriskey’s sensitive production, give this trip along the familiar trajectory constant injections of surprise. Food, in Cho’s eyes, is not only the means by which we stave off dying but also the generational battleground where parents’ attitudes shape children’s destinies. Each character in Aubergine gets a monologue, at some point, describing the best meal he or she ever had; each monologue, with one key exception, hinges on parent-child issues and conflicting views of food. (Dining before the show, which I normally avoid, may be advisable in this instance; otherwise the descriptions of meals that abound in the text, which include everything from Big Macs to turtle soup, will leave you ravenous.)
Ray’s father, we learn, lived mostly on junk food and was apathetic to fine cooking. “He was never in the kitchen,” Ray explains. “It was the one place he never went. I think that’s why I went there.” (To show you Cho’s subtle sense of irony, the one flashback scene in which we see Ray’s father up and about involves his intruding on Ray in the kitchen.) The lack of fine food in Ray’s childhood, complicated by emotional starvation (his mother died early on), contrasts with the childhood of his on-again, off-again girlfriend, Cornelia (played with vivid edginess by Sue Jean Kim), whose overgenerous mother “was obsessed with feeding people…and especially me, her child.”
Ray’s uncle (Joseph Steven Yang), summoned from Korea to his dying brother’s bedside, explains that Ray’s gift for cooking is an inheritance from his grandmother. (His monologue, a central event in the play, is delivered in Korean, with supertitles.) Like the talk of death, the talk of food often has a mystical quality to it. Ray is seen, at several points, as understanding through some psychic process exactly what people most want to eat. Even more amazingly, he seems to know the desires of the foodstuffs he handles. “I just had a sense,” he says, explaining his treatment of some imported African aubergines, “that this is the way they wanted to be cooked.” (He immediately adds, “Does that sound stupid? That sounds stupid.”)
The mysterious rituals of cooking and eating cross paths, as Aubergine winds its snaky, complex trail through the story of Ray’s deathbed vigil, with the magic that Lucien, a survivor of refugee camps, finds in the process of dying. He sees it as his function to instruct his patients’ grieving relatives, as he does Ray, in the minute signs that convey a readiness for the ultimate step. One may furrow one’s brow occasionally at Lucien’s apothegms as he becomes a bit of an authorial convenience, but the basic outlook behind his views is both sensible and psychologically convincing. “[I]t is strange to me,” he says, “how few of you see it [death] coming. There’s nothing for miles around, it is the only thing walking towards you and yet, you still can’t see it coming. You turn your heads away.”
Potts, best known on stage for his role as the Ugandan father in The Book of Mormon, handles this far gentler material with a graceful, nuanced realism that taps into the lyrical vein which seems to be a favorite destination of Cho’s writing. (She attained it periodically in her earlier play The Language Archive, and sustained it fully in the memorable Durango.)
While traversing the tension-ridden realm in which family traditions carried over from Korea collide with quintessentially American brashness, she maps, instead, a different set of border crossings: the points at which everyday reality, meeting the inexplicable, becomes poetry. “We spend the vast majority of our time feeling alone, apart, other,” Lucien tells Ray in a later scene, “Vibrating at different frequencies. But when you are in the presence of death, somehow all the frequencies become one.”
That transcendent unity doesn’t quite occur in Aubergine, which wrestles with so many different kinds of material that it tends to become discursive, slightly dissipating its energy. But Cho’s text often rises, flickeringly, to that lambent region, and Whoriskey’s production, while never lacking speed or humor, daringly allows itself to expand into long, somber moments of silent or near-silent understanding. She’s rightly seen that these shards of our experience with the intangible, which too many hit-hungry directors would try to avoid or to rush through, make up Aubergine‘s essence, supplying the distinction that lifts it beyond being yet another study of someone in mid-career crisis forced to cope with an aged parent’s passing.
The idea that our death, like the destiny we work out for ourselves, is built into our nature and programmed through our upbringing, does not appeal to those who market easy-step methods for handling grief. To think about dying as something that we do a little bit every day, like eating, makes us uncomfortable. Which makes Cho’s play, carefully positioned at the outer edge of our comfort zone, that much more valuable. Its closing scenes — a series of softly descending rest stops after the expected climax — seem overly drawn out while you watch. In retrospect you realize that each of them, like the stages leading up to death, has been inevitable.
By Julia Cho
416 West 42nd Street
Through October 2