The play takes place in the present in suburban U.S.A. Korean-American Ray is a personable 38-year-old chef whose cantankerous, long-widowed Korean-born father is comatose from cirrhosis of the liver. The two have been estranged for several reasons and Ray is dazed upon learning this. He has taken his father home from the hospital for hospice care. Lucien is the wise African refugee nurse who oversees the father’s impending demise. Cornelia is Ray’s younger, supportive Korean-born Americanized girlfriend. The father’s younger brother has journeyed from Korea after hearing the news, though the two have been out of touch for many years.
Playwright Julia Cho has crafted an engaging and universal work that unevenly blends reality with mysticism. The characters are all very well delineated and the dialogue is flavorful and realistic. It’s structured as a series of short scenes that include monologues, flashbacks and fantasies. The play’s two-act form diminishes its momentum, running two hours and fifteen minutes with an intermission. Repetitiveness and a preoccupation with profundity sidetrack its effectiveness at times.
The seemingly incongruous opening scene features a wealthy Caucasian woman delivering a long, Eric Bogosian/Wallace Shawn/Spaulding Gray-style monologue. She details her and her husband’s former existence as foodies. Their smug quests as “food tourists,” consuming unique dishes is described with arch relish. It’s a long time before the narrative purpose of this device is revealed and it’s merely a wan punchline striving for cosmic irony.
Director Kate Whoriskey realizes Aubergine’s dramatic potential with her steady staging and the sensitive and compelling performances of the cast.
Tim Kang as Ray possesses an effortless everyman quality that perfectly suits the wry weariness of the character. In this central role, Mr.Kang is commanding with his charming combination of deadpan and emotionalism.
As Ray’s father, Stephen Park’s charismatic presence is strongly felt even though for much of the play he lies silently in bed. During the flashbacks and fantasies, Mr. Park is in explosive glory as the combative parent. Particularly memorable is his monologue about his harsh life in Korea and army service there.
Michael Potts is delightful as the wise hospice nurse Lucien. Mr. Potts’ resonant deep voice and serene countenance richly convey the anguish of his past and the sympathetic pragmatism of his present occupation.
Speaking mostly in Korean with occasional English words for often-comic effect, Joseph Steven Yang is quite poignant as the uncle. With his animated appearance, Mr. Yang mines all of the comedy from the archetypical simple visitor from a foreign land as well as achieving moving depth. During his Korean conversations, the English translations are projected on to the top portion of the stage’s back wall.
With her sunny girlishness, drollness and passion, Sue Jean Kim winningly offers a lovely characterization of the girlfriend Cornelia.
To say that Jessica Love is annoying as Diane, the odd figure that begins the play, is no insult. Ms. Love is magnetic with her crisp and precise delivery that nails this figure of vapidity and self-absorption. Love also very skillfully appears in several other small roles.
That opening sequence takes place in front of a large, round wooden structure that takes up much of the stage. It resembles a giant bowl used for Korean food and it eventually opens up to reveal the realistic hospital, house and fantasy vistas. It’s all part of scenic designer Derek McLane’s very clever work that physically represents the play’s attachment to symbolism.
The flat normalcy of the present, memories and imagination are all vividly rendered by Peter Kaczorowski’s minutely calibrated lighting design. M.L. Dogg’s sound design expertly blends music and effects for excellent results. The characters’ basic but evocative clothing are the results of Jennifer Moeller’s very fine costume design.
Aubergine’s unnecessary lapses into grandiosity ultimately do not mar its achievements. There is much to admire and to enjoy in it and an eggplant (augergine in French, we are reminded by Lucien) does figure in the plot.
Aubergine (through October 2, 2016)
Playwrights Horizons, 416 West 42nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-279–4200 or visit http://www.playwrightshorizons.org
Running time: two hours and 15 minutes with one intermission