29 May 2016

'Daphne's Dive'

“My stepfather owned some bars in Philadelphia, where I used to hang out after school . . . .  I loved the bar as the hub of local news amongst the neighbors—from there the voices just started coming to me.”  That’s the way Quiara Alegría Hudes, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and co-creator with Lin-Manuel Miranda of the Off-Broadway and Broadway hit In the Heights, explains how the idea for Daphne’s Dive, her new play at the Signature Theatre Company, began.  There are seven actors in Daphne’s Dive, but there are eight characters: the neighborhood bar in North Philadelphia that shares its name with the play’s title, is enough of a presence that it becomes a dramatis persona, a figure in the drama.

Daphne’s Dive is Hudes’s first  offering in her five-year playwriting residency at Signature—and her first play since she completed her Elliot Trilogy.  (Hudes is in the first year of her Residency Five term which affords her three productions over five years at the company’s Pershing Square Signature Center on Theatre Row.)  The play started previews in Signature’s Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre, the company’s variable-space black box, on 26 April and opened on 15 May; after a week’s extension from 5 June, the play’s scheduled to close on 12 June.  I met Diana, my regular theater companion, at the Pershing Square Center on Friday evening, 20 May.

Hudes, 38, was born in Philadelphia to a Jewish father, a carpenter, and a Puerto Rican mother (with Taíno Indian roots) who came to Philadelphia when she was 12.  Later, after her parents separated, her mother married a Puerto Rican businessman.  Hudes came to playwriting early, possibly from the influence of her grandmother on her mother’s side who was a vivid storyteller; her first play was produced when she was in eighth grade and by tenth grade, she was winning prizes—first place in the Philadelphia Young Playwrights Festival.  On her father’s side, an aunt instilled in her the love of music and she began writing and composing and studying music in West Philly as a girl.  She earned a B.A. in composition from Yale University—where she wrote two musicals as a student—and played with a band in Philadelphia for a few years. 

Hudes returned to writing, however, and in 2004 she graduated with an MFA from Brown University’s playwriting program, led by playwright Paula Vogel who remains an important influence.  Her first adult play, Yemaya’s Belly, won several playwriting awards in 2003 but its 2005 mounting at the Portland Stage Company in Maine wasn’t critically successful.  Her next work, however, was Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue, the first in her Elliot Trilogy, which was a finalist for the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.  The emerging dramatist next collaborated with Lin-Manuel Miranda on his breakthrough musical, In the Heights, for which Hudes wrote the book.  The musical was first presented in 2005 at the National Music Theatre Conference at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Connecticut, before opening Off-Broadway in 2007.  It won and was nominated for a passel of Off-Broadway theater awards (none specifically for the book, however) and it was again a finalist for the Pulitzer.  In the Heights transferred to Broadway in 2008 and ran for 29 previews and 1184 regular performances until 2011, winning the Tony for Best Musical and several others Tony wins and nominations (including a nom for best book), and another nomination for the Pulitzer Prize.  Hudes’s second Elliot play, Water by the Spoonful, produced by the Second Stage Theatre in 2013, was nominated again for a Pulitzer and this time, Hudes won the 2012 drama prize.  In 2013, the third play in the Elliot trilogy, The Happiest Song Plays Last, was staged at Chicago’s Goodman Theater and Off-Broadway at Second Stage in 2014. 

Hudes has also written a children’s musical, Barrio Grrrl!, which premièred at Washington, D.C.’s Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in 2009 and has toured nationally.  In 2010, she wrote In My Neighborhood, her first children’s book, published by Arthur Levine Books, an imprint of Scholastic Inc.  She’s a resident playwright at New Dramatists and the Shapiro Distinguished Professor of Writing and Theater at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut.  The playwright was tapped in 2015 for a Residency Five spot at STC.  She lives in Washington Heights with her husband, a public defender; her friend and former collaborator Miranda is her downstairs neighbor.  (Miranda and Thomas Kail, Heights and now Daphne’s Dive director, met Hudes in 2004 at an early reading of Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue when they were searching for a librettist for In the Heights.)

As a playwright, Hudes has so far always focused on her own Latino community.  (Though she’s of mixed backgrounds, half Jewish and half Puerto Rican, and “was always shuffling between communities,” Hudes explains, “I was raised by two Puerto Rican parents,” referring to her stepfather.)  Her plays are all set not only in Philadelphia, but in the Latino community of North Philly, where much of her family—she grew up in West Philly—lives and works.  “This is our history: it’s not written down, it’s not recorded, it could disappear,” Hudes’s mother told her, and the playwright took it as “a task” her mother had assigned her.  “Sometimes I wish I could just write plays that don’t have that social context,” she mused, “but I haven’t been able to escape that yet.”  Indeed, after finishing the Elliot Trilogy, she tried to compose a play set somewhere else—still Philadelphia, but on the upscale Main Line; however, she abandoned the effort “because it’s a lie and I don’t like it.”  So Hudes returned dramaturgically to North Philly and wrote about her stepfather’s bar, the play that became Daphne’s Dive.  If she strays from her dramaturgical comfort zone, it probably won’t be soon since she feels “there’s still more to go, . . . more depths to look into and explore.”

Hudes’s musical background, however, stays with her as a dramatist: she composes rhythmically—one interviewer writes, “She is a musician with a pen”—and there’s frequently music in her plays.  When she sits down to write, one of the first things in her process is choosing the music she’ll listen to while working; “Oftentimes it’s the playlist for the play I’m writing,” she says.  In fact, the music comes before the playwright sits down to write a word.  She says “My first thought is always what kind of music am I going to have in this play.  And I base the world, the language of the play, on that type of music.”  Hudes, for example, expressly chose three distinct musical styles for each play in the Elliot Trilogy: Western classics, jazz, Puerto Rican/Latin folk.  As Hudes was writing Daphne’s Dive, the fusion of Latin jazz and classical music of Michel Camilo, with which the playwright had been taken since she was a teen, was the music she listened to; ultimately she asked Camilo, whom Hudes had never met, to write the music for the play. 

The playwright has said that Daphne’s Dive began with the setting.  She explained that after working on the Elliot Trilogy, she wanted something with “longer scenes that had a little bit of breath to them.  I thought a bar was the perfect setting . . . .”  It’s plain Hudes also uses her family and friends as inspiration for her characters; her cousin, for example, was the basis for Elliot in the three plays about the Iraq War vet.  They’re significantly fictionalized for, as Alexis Soloski says in a New York Times profile of the writer, “each play is a delicate negotiation between fact and fiction, between the experiences of her relatives and the dramatic necessity of the play.”  Hudes explains that she puts more importance on “why their stories matter than what the particulars of the stories are.”  The playwright says of her own writing that it’s “very character-based” and that for her, “it starts with people and ends with people.” 

The origin of the story in Daphne’s Dive comes from something that happened to a cousin of the writer.  She “heard a child crying in the adjacent row home” and when she finally got into the house, she found “that the police had raided the place and the house was empty.  Except for a young girl, who . . . had been abandoned.”  Hudes’s cousin took the girl in until her parents got out of jail.  “I kept thinking about that girl,” said the playwright, “about hearing a kid cry through the walls.  I thought, ‘This girl is a catalyst that will change the life of a group of people.’”  Hudes explained the crux of her thought: “A jolt of empathy can jumpstart adults’ hearts.  The truth is, we’re hardened.  We simply are, it’s a survival tactic.  And then a jolt of empathy can remind us what matters.”  So, having set upon placing her story in a North Philly dive bar, the dramatist took this family incident, moved it from a row house to an apartment building above the bar, peopled it with characters based on her relatives and regulars at her stepfather’s bar, added the piano music of Michel Camilo, and composed her portrait of a community in microcosm.  As director Kail sees it, Hudes is writing “about evolving communities and the challenge of leaving a mark, of having a legacy.”

While Hudes herself might have been the model for young Ruby, the young girl who actually grows up in her adoptive mother’s bar, it seems that her stepfather, the entrepreneur who was active in the Puerto Rican community of Philadelphia, might have become the play’s Acosta, the businessman-turned-local politician.  Daphne, herself, seems to have been modeled in part on Hudes’s own mother, who, among other things, was an herbalist (Daphne chews aloe leaves constantly)—though some traits of her mother became part of Daphne’s sister’s character as well (Hudes’s mother grew up on a farm and sister Inez grows gourds on the lawn of her suburban home; she also talks frankly about sex, a characteristic Hudes attributed to her mother as well).  The composer Camilo himself became Daphne’s upstairs neighbor, whom we never meet but to whose piano-playing she awakens every morning and which is her companion though the day.  Daphne’s Dive itself, of course, is Hudes’s memory of her stepfather’s North Philly bar where she played after doing her homework while getting to know the regulars—some of whom might recognize themselves in Daphne’s customers.

As I think I’ve established, Daphne (Vanessa Aspillaga) is the owner of the “cheap corner bar” (as STC’s publicity has it) that bears her name, frequented by a diverse bunch of regulars.  Most, like Daphne, are Latinos from North Philadelphia—identified by Hudes as the Puerto Rican neighborhood.  There’s Pablo (Matt Saldivar), a Cuban-American painter who specializes in art inspired by people’s garbage, through which he digs to find stimulating subjects; believe it or not, Pablo gets a gallery show and starts to move up the art-world ladder.  Inez (Daphne Rubin-Vega) has married well and has moved on up to the ritzy suburban Main Line—though she sees no reason to discard her roots and insists on growing guiros (“more Puerto Rican than a crucifix on the rearview,” Inez boasts) in her yard—and revels in her chic clothes and posh lifestyle; she still stops in at Daphne’s bar, however, to keep in contact with her community.  Inez’s husband, Acosta (Carlos Gomez), is a successful businessman (with a slightly shady past which he’s outgrown) who makes a successful run for city council and then state senator.  Jenn (KK Moggie), an Asian-American originally from San Francisco, is a politically-engaged dancer and performance artist who stages colorful guerilla protests around the city in support of leftist causes; 50 years ago, she’d have been a hippie.  (Modeled by Hudes on Kathy Change, 1950-96, a performance artist and political activist who killed herself in an act of self-immolation on the University of Pennsylvania campus, I found Jenn’s character reminiscent of avant-garde—and onetime street—artist Yayoi Kusama.)  The only Anglo patron in Daphne’s Dive, Rey (Gordon Joseph Weiss), a Willie Nelson look-alike in scruffy jeans, long, graying hair, and a bandana around his head, scorns all possessions except his motorcycle (on which he paid Pablo to paint mermaids), spending his cash—the only payment he’ll accept for his work as a glazier—as quickly as he earns it; Rey and Acosta used to run together in their bad old days and still have brotherly affection for one another, irrespective of Acosta’s rise in social status.

Near the end of the first scene, when Pablo runs out back to pick through Daphne’s trash (which she’s forbidden him to do), he returns with a terrified 11-year-old African-American girl in his arms.  This is Ruby (Samira Wiley), abandoned when her parents were hauled off to jail in a raid that awakened Daphne during the night.  To escape the Philadelphia Department of Human Services, Ruby had jumped out the third-floor window and, scraped and bruised, hid behind the dumpster.  Daphne takes the little homeless girl in and eventually adopts her and Ruby becomes a mainstay of Daphne’s Dive—and the focal character of the play.

Ruby introduces each of the play’s five scenes by announcing her age, starting with the play’s first line: “I am 11.”  As Ruby ages from 11 to 15 to 20 to 25 and finally 29, we watch her grow into a young adult as the lives of her composite family and the changes among them and in the community outside are recounted inside Daphne’s Dive.  Ruby’s new family each gives her advice and support as she grows up, like all the barnyard fowl sharing brooding responsibilities for the Churkendoose egg.  There are triumphs—Pablo gets a gallery show; Acosta is elected to Philadelphia’s city council and then to Pennsylvania’s state senate, both celebrated at the bar—and tragedies—Acosta and Inez split up; Jenn dies in a spectacular way that echoes Kathy Change’s death, greatly affecting Ruby—but the life in the bar goes on; only Jenn leaves the fold.  In the last full scene—there’s a short epilogue that’s a flashback to Ruby at 11 that reveals a secret Daphne had kept from everyone else and might be an explanation of why she took so strongly to Ruby—Ruby has taken her adoptive mother’s place behind the bar, a signal that the world of Daphne’s Dive will continue into the next generation, just with a new Daphne.

Though I’d read the writer’s name for a few years, Daphne’s Dive is my first experience with a Hudes play.  My only intimation of what to expect was the New York Times review (I don’t read the other reviews in my round-up until after I’ve written my report) and I thought Christopher Isherwood was quite positive in all respects: the writing, directing, and acting.  Well, I’m here to tell you Daphne’s Dive was the longest 100 minutes I’ve sat through in a pretty long time!  As I said to Diana (who mostly agreed with me, but she’s always less forgiving than I am) when we’d left the theater (I didn’t feel like contending with anyone from the audience who might overhear me): I found everything about Daphne’s Dive artificial: the characters, the situation, the dialogue, the acting, the directing—even, to an extent, the set.  (The play covers 18 years, from 1994 to 2011, and not one thing in set designer Donyale Werle’s bar changes in all that time.  Even if Daphne never redecorates or renovates, things break and have to be replaced; electric signs burn out and new ones are brought in by the brewers, distillers, or distributors.  But apparently not in North Philly.)  I’ll go into detail in a bit, but I didn’t believe one moment of this play.  (In case you’re wondering: it’s supposed to be Realism, not stylized.  Or if it’s supposed to be stylized, the director and cast pull way too far back.)  

As for the writing, I’ll go into that in a moment, too, but I also said to Diana afterwards that I can’t believe this was written by a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright.  It comes close to amateurism, like an MFA (or maybe even BFA) playwriting student trying something she’s not ready to handle yet.  It also doesn’t seem to have a theme or point, though as a “slice of life,” it isn’t credible.  (Toast, by Brit playwright Richard Bean and on which I reported on 19 May, is a slice-of-life play, with no message or theme, but it was totally credible.)

And speaking of Toast, which was an excellent ensemble production, Daphne’s Dive’s supposed to be one, too—except it isn’t.  It’s a collection of seven actors—same number as Toast, coincidentally—who are each doing his or her own thing.  Where was director Kail in all this?  Many reviewers compared Daphne’s Dive to Cheers, the ’80s TV sitcom where the patrons and staff of the bar formed a sort of ad hoc family (which is what the characters of Toast did as well), but my analogy would be Robert Patrick’s Kennedy’s Children (Broadway, 1975) in which the bar drinkers are entirely unconnected to each other (by design, not bad acting or directing) and exist in their own cocoons.  Of course, Kennedy’s Children isn’t a very theatrically exciting play—a series of monologues, really.

Hudes said that the idea of Daphne’s Dive started with the setting, an evocation of her stepfather’s North Philly bar, and Donyale Werle has brought that to life in all its neighborhood comfort and warmth.  The place is worn and tattered, but in a friendly and welcoming way.  The mismatched tables, the barstools that include one with a torn seat mended with duct tape, the small strip of sidewalk just outside with the newspaper box (one wall of the bar is truncated so we can see outside) all add up to a kind of surrogate home—for some, a get-away; for others, a refuge.  That a gang of diverse folks, all with different connections to the neighborhood, would form a microcosmic community here is perfectly believable.  It’s importance to all of the group is demonstrated when Acosta and Inez watch the election returns in his first race on the TV with the long-broken speakers in the bar with the friends who knew him as a scrounger, rather than at an election headquarters with his campaign workers or in a reception hall with his well-wishers.  (That the set doesn’t change at all over the span of the play doesn’t diminish Werle’s fundamental achievement.)

The bar set’s lit by Betsy Adams with a light level just low enough to suggest Daphne’s Dive is only a few lumens above a Hernando’s Hideaway—not “a dark, secluded place” exactly, but not permanent daylight, either.  Nevin Steinberg’s sound is principally the piano music from the musician’s apartment upstairs—which, after the first scene when it’s introduced, is mostly used to cover the scene changes for the curtain-less and intermissionless production.  (The bar may be an eighth character in Daphne’s Dive, but the subliminal presence of Michel Camilo, despite Hudes’s insistence on his importance, never really rises to that level.  The playing merely remains background music.)  The character’s clothes, though, are much more significant and Toni-Leslie James’s designs are tailored (if you will) for each one’s personality and social standing out in the world (not in the bar, by the way: in there, everyone’s equal).  Acosta’s fitted suits, and Inez’s fashion wigs (by Robert-Charles Vallance), stylish shoes and dresses—she favors bright colors, too—tell the appropriate tales, just as Rey’s worn jeans and bandana or Jenn’s boho-theatrical get-ups do.

Director Kail, whose credits include not just In the Heights, his previous collaboration with Hudes, but also Miranda’s blockbuster hit, Hamilton, both at the Public Theater and on Broadway, does a good job of keeping the actors moving about the bar without making it look like a square dance.  Signature’s Courtyard Theater is configured as what an Off-Off-Broadway artistic director I knew called a “butterfly” stage: audience on two opposite sides of the square platform, which is somewhat more problematic than either the three-sided thrust or the all-around arena.  While one reviewer registered a complaint about his view of the actor speaking being blocked by another member of the company, I never had that problem from my fourth-row seat, one in from the “upstage” aisle.  Other aspects of the actors’ work, however, were more troublesome.  As I mentioned earlier, there was a lack of connection among the seven members of this impromptu family group.  I never really felt that they were as intimately linked as Hudes’s words told me they were.  Each character was well enough delineated, but it was as if they’d each rehearsed alone somehow and came together just for the performances.  (I keep going back to Toast, with which I had a different set of issues, but there was no question in my mind while watching that performance that those men had known each other for a long time.  Admittedly, most of that cast had been doing the play since 2014, which may account for some of that intimacy.)  In my experience, this deficiency is the director’s fault.

To the extent that the performances are partly at fault for the lackluster production, I also blame Kail for either sending the actors in the wrong direction or not pulling them out of a rabbit hole.  (It was my experience as an actor that when a cast has absent or inadequate direction, the actors will find their own paths, but each one will be individual.)  The clearest example I saw in Daphne’s Dive was Daphne Rubin-Vega’s Inez.  I’ve never found Rubin-Vega a mannered actor (though I confess that my experience of her work is limited to film and TV; I’d never seen her on stage before this), but in Hudes’s play, she flailed her arms and flapped her hands so much I thought she might soon lift off.  If this was a character choice, it didn’t communicate anything about Inez to me, and if it was just an acting tic, Kail ought to have damped it.  As it was, it became a  distraction.  Nothing else on the Linney stage was that obvious, but everyone seemed to be trying just a little too hard to put the diverse characters across with, as the saying goes, feeling.  It all came off as acting rather than behaving.  It may have been generated by one of the problems I see in Hudes’s writing, which I cover below, where she seems to have loaded—actually overloaded—each character with arbitrary traits which the actors had to scramble to evince.  Of course, I’m just guessing at the cause—but the effect was undeniable to me.

I certainly hope (and assume) that the quality of Hudes’s dramaturgy is better in her prize-winning play than I found it in Daphne’s Dive.  I can’t say that the playwright was more connected to the story of the troubled war vet than to the patrons of Daphne’s bar—after all, characters and situations in both plays are based on her extended family—but that would explain the feeling I had that this script was a slapdash effort.  My impression of Daphne’s Dive, in addition to what I said before, is that Hudes assembled a bunch of characteristics and incidents she liked and hadn’t already used (plus some, I believe, she had), and just lumped them together in a sort of omnibus play—a grab-bag of snips and scraps from her past.  She said that Ruby would act as a “catalyst that will change the life of a group of people,” but that never really seems to happen.  In fact, the one common trait with which Hudes imbued her characters is almost universal goodwill and decency: these people, far from being “hardened,” don’t need a “jolt of empathy” to hold out a hand to someone from their community who needs help.  Ruby’s a presence in the bar and the play, but no more than the other six characters; the technique of having her introduce each scene by announcing her age is a theatrical contrivance that doesn’t make Ruby the person in the play to whom the story happens, even if that’s what Hudes intended.  In fact, except for the moment she’s found behind the building, Ruby’s insertion into this on-going collective hardly affects them at all; no one seems to change what they do or say or how they do or say it because Ruby’s there now.  Wiley does a nice enough job portraying the character, but she’s by no means the mover of this drama.

Hudes’s language in Daphne’s Dive alternates between ordinary-sounding speech, inflected believably according to each character’s background and personality, and hifalutin, not-quite-poetic language that comes off as brittle and studied, the kind of phrases only a writer would compose.  (Sometimes lyrical Realism works great: Tennessee Williams did it and so did Ibsen, Chekhov, and Shaw; Neil Simon uses it, too, as did Lorraine Hansberry and Lanford and August Wilson.  But Hudes doesn’t seem to be in that company yet.)  The playwright also seems to have taken characteristics from some of her family and others and just scattered them around like grass seed, hoping that some will take root.  There are just too many quirks and personality traits for this little bunch of characters in such a small-scale play; it’s like the way I feel about the characters and situations.  (According to STC’s program for Daphne’s Dive, the play had a dramaturg.  I have no idea if he worked with Hudes on the composition of the play—she’s never mentioned using a dramaturg in any of her descriptions of her writing process and the program credit is for a “production dramaturg,” who usually works with the director and writer in rehearsals more than during the creation process—but it seems to me she could have used one in his editorial capacity.)

In its survey of 24 reviews, Show-Score reports that Daphne’s Dive received 67% positive notices against no negative ones and 33% mixed reviews for an average score of 73 (out of 100).  One of the two strongest reviews in the dailies was in Elisabeth Vincentelli’s New York Post omnibus column.  The Post reviewer dubbed the play a “dramedy” which “suggests a real sense of community, with people with whom you’d actually want to hang out.”  Vincentelli devoted the rest of her brief review to praising Samira Wiley’s “unassuming skill” and Daphne Rubin-Vega’s “best performance in years.”  In his equally short notice in New York’s Daily News, Joe Dziemianowicz reported that Hudes, who “writes about families forged by blood and makeshift means,” depicts “a group portrait that packs compassion but lacks cohesion.” 

Tied with the Post in Show-Score’s tally, Christopher Isherwood’s New York Times review described Daphne’s Dive as a “warm-spirited if loose-jointed new play” which “feels at times like a throwback to television comedies of an earlier era, the politically engaged Norman Lear years.”  The play’s characters, Isherwood affirmed, “may seem an oddly assorted bunch, but as we come to know them, their easygoing, genial interaction and interdependence come to seem natural,” demonstrating Hudes’s “supple feel for characterization and a wide-ranging sympathy for life’s waifs and strays.”  Not that the Times reviewer found in the play “entirely credible—or free of a sprinkling of sentimentality,” noting especially Jenn’s death.  Kail “displays once again a fine instinct for shaping ensemble work” and though Werle’s “nicely funky” set “divides the auditorium so that at times we may not be able to read the characters’ faces,” the Timesman promised “there’s never a point at which we don’t feel connected to them and their connections to one another.”  Isherwood had high praise for the actors: Vanessa Aspillaga’s Daphne “combines a certain dryness with submerged warmth,” KK Moggie’s Jenn “thankfully remains just this side of cloyingly whimsical,” and Matt Saldivar’s Pablo “radiates confidence.”  Rubin-Vega “zings out” Inez’s quips “with appealing élan” and Carlos Gomez’s Acosta “manages to project a swaggering ambition that nevertheless doesn’t obscure his instinctive sympathy.”  Of special note is Wiley’s “remarkable skill” in playing Ruby, particularly as the young woman in the middle scenes when, Isherwood felt, the actor’s “performance darkens in spirit as Ruby fights her way through her suffering.”  The review-writer acknowledged, “The play’s episodic structure can make it seem like, well, a series of television episodes plucked from different seasons,” but insisted that this isn’t a fault: “It’s more like high praise.”

The Guardian’s Alexis Soloski wrote that Daphne’s Dive “is about the ways in which we seek connection with the people around us, sometimes finding it, sometimes failing it,” like her earlier plays, but the “structure of Daphne’s Dive, as directed by Hamilton hotshot Thomas Kail, is unhelpfully looser than in past plays.”  Soloski complained that “the characterizations feel a little schematic,” but advised, “These are not stock figures,” though they’re “not as richly textured as they might be.”  Also, observed the Guardian reviewer, “Hudes’ extraordinary sincerity . . . can sometimes come across as naiveté, although it isn’t quite.”  Soloski added that “the plotting and characterizations don’t quite prop up the bar”; however, Hudes’s work has “an unassailable heart” which Soloski asserted is a manifestation of “a fierce compassion for the people she creates and an equally ardent love for the ethnically and culturally diverse city that raised her.”  The review-writer felt that the bar isn’t exactly a “melting pot,” but “it is the rum punch that Daphne offers, in which the separate flavors mingle, but remain somehow distinct.”  She concluded, “It’s worth downing.”  In the New Yorker’s “Goings On About Town” column, the reviewer remarked that Hudes “hews slavishly to the tavern-drama format: throw a bunch of quirky individuals together in a small room, pour a few drinks, and let ’em talk.”  The columnist complained, “The characters don’t so much converse as trade exposition, and even the surprise reveals are predictable,” and concluded, “This unhappy family displays a ponderous lack of imagination.”

Marilyn Stasio summed up Daphne’s Dive as “a sweet play, but it doesn’t have much heft” in Variety.  With praise for the actors, Stasio dismissed Hudes’s intimation that Ruby “will cleanse their souls and change their lives,” saying (as I did) that since the bar’s patrons are such “decent folks to begin with,” the play’s “plot line is a non-starter.”  Despite Hudes’s “juicy dialogue,” a play “without a plot or something of consequence at stake . . . slips into the conventional vein of those static ensemble pieces set in diners, barbershops, hair salons, and bars” and even Kail’s “joyful inventiveness” can’t “pump some life into that static genre format.”  Concluded Stasio, “Barroom plays are fun to visit, but you don’t really want to live there.”  Time Out New York’s David Cote, calling Daphne’s Dive an “episodic narrative,” described the play as a “slow-burning, vibrantly sketched portrait of a scruffy North Philly booze joint run by love-scarred Daphne.”  The man from TONY wrote that Aspillaga “anchors” the play as Daphne and is “[s]weetly centered yet able to project panic and terror in a heartbeat”; as Ruby, Wiley is “heartbreaking.” 

In Entertainment Weekly, Melissa Rose Bernardo complained that Daphne’s Dive “could use a little more length and a lot more exposition.”  Nonetheless, the EW writer promised, “there’s plenty of fodder for a boozy barroom drama.”  The Hollywood Reporter’s Frank Scheck stated in his “Bottom Line”: “Like the drinks served at the play’s dive-bar setting, not very potent.”  Noting, “Plays set in bars are a time-honored theatrical tradition,” Scheck affirmed that they “usually have more depth than” Daphne’s Dive.  “Not that there’s a dearth of drama going on in” the play, reported the HR reviewer, but “it all speeds by so quickly—and paradoxically, sluggishly—that the play feels like a sketch for a more fully worked-out drama that hasn’t yet been written.”  Scheck explained that the playwright “displays a strong feel for her well-drawn characters and their hermetically sealed milieu.  But that doesn’t prevent the play from feeling both overstuffed and undernourished” and “too much of the dialogue feels forced and rambling.”  While Wiley is “particularly moving” as Ruby, Kail has directed “evocatively,” and Werle’s bar setting is “exactly the sort of place you wouldn’t mind ducking into,” Scheck warned “that the price of a drink includes a lot of listening to other people’s problems.”

Brian Scott Lipton on Theatre Pizzazz asserted that Hudes puts “alternately poetic and fiercely realistic words” in the mouths of her “well-drawn characters” in Daphne’s Dive.  Director Kail “lets the piece unfold at its own pace, which may feel a little too leisurely for the show’s first 15 minutes.  But the momentum builds” as the play progresses.  Lipton complimented the “crackerjack cast” and recommended, “So when theater this real is presented to us, we have only one choice: drink it in!”  CurtainUp’s Elyse Sommer described Hudes’s play as “a believable but hardly a feel-good portrait of an era,” though she warned, “But don’t expect this neatly constructed forward and backward trajectory to wind things up happily.”  Instead, the CU review-writer said, the playwright “dives into these characters[’] pasts and presents, pain and passions” to show “a group of people trying—not always successfully—to help each other to celebrate good times and deal with the sad ones.”  Sommer’s sole complaint was that the plays “flow would have been improved by tightening the script to lose about ten minutes” off its hour-and-40-minute length, even though, with “Kail’s direction, the cast taps into the play’s most powerful moments.”  The CU notice also included praise for Werle’s set, James’s costumes, Vallance’s wigs and hairstyles, and Camilo’s musical compositions.

On Broadway World, Michael Dale found Hudes’s writing in Daphne’s Dive “warm and inviting” and added that director  Kail’s “very strong cast makes this new drama worth a visit,” with Werle’s set, which is “terrifically accurate,” and Camilo’s “funky” score, “a snazzy mood-enhancer.”  Dale noted, however, “Without a continuous plot, DAPHNE'S DIVE is more of a portrait of lives realized through a collage of events.”  Arpita Mukherjee asserted that Daphne’s Dive, “a microcosm of the ‘real America,’” is “a testament to the need for diversity in theatre.” on Stage Buddy.  Hudes’s “writing explores each character’s story,” but “does not always delve deeply”; the “ensemble is top-notch,” however, and “rises to the challenge.”  Our Stage Buddy concluded, “Hudes’ latest work is an unapologetic and brave look at America becoming.”  NY Theatre Guide’s Jane Dentinger wrote that Kail’s direction “is seamless” and Werle “has provided a perfectly weathered bar,” lit with “just the right seedy tones” by Betsy Adams.  Hudes’s “writing is wonderful,” asserted Dentinger, but added that “much of her sly humor is lost here amidst domestic and political polemics, which makes some of the performances seem forced.”  The cyber reviewer, though, ended by saying, “Still there is fun to be had in Daphne Rubin-Vega’s sly turn as Inez.” and “Carlos Gomez, whose charisma grounds his Acosta in something more than sheer ambition”; but “it’s Samira Wiley’s tender and passionate rendering of Ruby. . . that gives this play its heart and meaning.”

Tulis McCall of New York Theatre Guide (not to be confused with NY Theatre Guide, above—yeah, I know: one of the sites should get a more distinct name!) suggested that Daphne’s Dive “is one of those plays . . . that makes you wonder if anyone read it before they decided to produce it.”   For one thing, the cast of characters is “excellent,” with “[l]ots of potential,” providing “all the ingredients for a feast,” but McCall found that “while Hudes does try to connect the dots, these people’s paths cross with only the barest of connections.”  The “fine cast has to deal with inconsistencies and missing information” and the play ends up being “a surface offering.  This play told me about these people but never let me in.”  McCall offered a simile for her Daphne’s Dive experience:

Kind of like a chef who describes the dish she is about to prepare but forgets to bring it to your table. I want to taste the food.  Hell, I want to go into the kitchen and look in the garbage pails.  I want the whole deal, not the story of the whole deal.

On Deadline, Jeremy Gerard dubbed the STC production “fine work” in one of Show-Score’s highest-rated reviews, affirming that “Hudes has a fine grasp of the friction created by the social tectonic plates that shift according to the waves of gentrification and governance.”  Gerard also reported, “It’s all beautifully calibrated under the direction of Thomas Kail . . .  in Donyale Werle’s terrific environmental set, atmospherically lit by Betsy Adams.”  The Deadliner added that Toni-Leslie James’s costumes “are also character-perfect” and he complimented the acting as “all of a piece,” especially lauding Wiley as “outstanding.”  Hayley Levitt reported that thanks to Hudes and Kail, Daphne’s Dive “breathes the . . . slightly gritt[y], air of a flawed yet united community” on TheaterMania.  Levitt complained that, while the relationship of Daphne and Ruby “is by far the most compelling thread of” Hudes’s play, “we get only an occasional scene for them to illustrate their . . . bond.”  “It’s difficult to find the eye of the storm in Hudes’ busy web of characters and story,” explained the TM reviewer, adding, “As much as the ancillary characters help define the community . . ., their sheer multitude makes it difficult to invest in any one journey.”  In the end, however, Levitt found that “Hudes, Kail, and their accomplished cast have made Daphne's Dive more than the sum of its parts.” 

[For those born too late to know about The Churkendoose, it was a children’s story published as a book by Ben Ross Berenberg in 1946 (Wonder Books).  A year later, Decca Records issued a recording of Ray Bolger narrating and singing the story and lyrics of Berenberg, set to music of Alec Wilder, played by an orchestra directed by Mitchell (Mitch) Miller.  Just about every Baby Boomer (like, ahem, me) grew up with this tale of a peculiar bird hatched from a mysterious egg on which all the barnyard fowl—a chicken, a turkey, a duck, and a goose—took turns sitting.  When it was hatched, the bird was a combination of all four, hence, a “churkendoose.”  But the new bird was odd-looking and was turned away by the others—until a fox came lurking around the coop.  The lesson of the story is that sometimes differences can be a good thing and “it all depends on how you  look at things.”]

24 May 2016

“Labor History in Musical Theatre”

[The May 2016 issue of Allegro (Volume 116, No. 5), the news magazine of Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians, the union that represents Broadway and Off-Broadway theater musicians, ran an interesting pair of articles under the banner headline, “Labor History in Musical Theatre.”  The first piece was about the historic labor musical of 1937, produced by the International Ladies Garment Workers' Union (ILGWU), Pins and Needles, which became a surprise hit at the Labor Stage Theatre, 104 W. 39th Street, and the Windsor Theatre, 157 W. 48th Street, where it moved in 1939.  Pins and Needles altogether ran 1108 performances from 1937 to 1940 with a largely non-professional cast made up of ILGWU members.

[New York University restaged the labor musical at the historical Provincetown Playhouse, 133 Macdougal Street in Greenwich Village, which the university owns, from 24 to 27 March.  The opening date was the 105th anniversary of the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist  Factory Fire, a labor history disaster in the modern-day NYU neighborhood near Washington Square in which 146 garment workers died because of poor safety regulations at the time.]

‘Pins and Needles’

Coinciding with the recent 105th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire and just in time for Labor History Month, NYU has revived and restored the 1937 musical “Pins and Needles,” one of the first musical theatre works to deal with the topic of organized labor.

Originally conceived as a community theater show sponsored by the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, “Pins and Needles” is a lighthearted and pro-labor depiction of workers in a changing society. The 1937 show, with music and lyrics by Harold Rome, was cast with actual union workers who rehearsed after work and performed Friday and Saturday nights at the Princess Theatre on West 39th Street. The show’s popularity was so immense that the cast ultimately abandoned their day jobs to embrace a full performance schedule of eight shows per week, marking the only time in history that regular workers – who were not trained actors – were able to bring a successful musical to Broadway.

“Pins and Needles” ran for nearly four years with several editions and road tours. Throughout the run, material was added and dropped to keep the show current. As a result, the show did not exist in a specific, static form. The current revival had to be reassembled from original source material, which the Harold Rome estate provided.

Director Meg Bussert, a Tony Award nominee and World Theater Award winner, worked with Local 802 member Joseph Church, who was the show’s orchestrator and music supervisor. (Church’s Broadway credits include “The Lion King” and “The Who’s Tommy,” both of which he music directed and supervised.) Church wrote new orchestrations that honored the unique style and humor of Harold Rome’s songwriting. Bussert rehearsed the production as a workshop, a process that allowed the cast time to discover their characters and situations.

The show also paid tribute to the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, the deadliest industrial disaster in the history of New York City, which caused the deaths of 146 garment workers and sparked a legislative battle for improved, federally mandated labor conditions. In honor of the anniversary, which took place on March 25, representatives from theatrical unions attended a special showing and participated in a talk-back.

The cast and musicians were all students of NYU’s Steinhardt Department of Music and Performing Arts Professions. The program in vocal performance produced the show, which ran at the Provincetown Playhouse at 133 Macdougal Street. The student musicians were paid under a UAW Local 2110 union contract, which covers NYU’s graduate students.

[The original Pins and Needles was produced by Labor Stage Inc., and presented by ILGWU.  It was staged by Charles Friedman (1903-84) with music and lyrics mostly by Harold J. Rome (1908-98) and book by Rome, Arthur Arent (1904-72), Marc Blitzstein (1905-64), Emmanuel Eisenberg, Charles Friedman (1903-84), David Gregory, Joseph Schrank  (1900–1984), Arnold B. Horwitt (1918-77), and John Latouche (1914-56), featuring songs with lyrics by Latouche, Friedman, Arthur Kramer, Arnold B. Horwitt (1918-77), and Bernece Kazounoff. The production was choreographed by Benjamin Zemach (1902-97) with scenic designs by S[ointu] Syrjala (1904-79).]

*  *  *  *
[The second Allegro article covers the history of a tobacco-worker’s strike in 1943 (which, you’ll read, gave us the protest anthem “We Shall Overcome”) told in a new jazz opera by Steve Jones., a member of AFM Local 161-710 (Washington, D.C.).  The show was co-created by Elise Bryant, the executive director of the Labor Heritage Foundation.]

Love Songs from the Liberation Wars’

On June 17, 1943, ten thousand workers, mostly African-American women, went on strike at the R.J. Reynolds tobacco company in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. It was a dramatic story of courage. Poor workers, who were fed up with the brutal conditions in the largest factory in the South, went up against the power of R.J. Reynolds, the newspaper his family owned, and the unholy alliance – including the FBI – that propped up the Jim Crow segregation laws through this time. The musical “Love Songs from the Liberation Wars: The 1940’s Tobacco Workers Struggle” details how these women won their union.

The show opens up on the R.J. Reynolds cigarette assembly line. Conditions are hot and tobacco dust is flying through the air. The foreman is abusive; the company nurse orders workers back on the line even when they are sick, and pervading it all are the Jim Crow laws, dividing workers white and black, so that they never unite to fight the boss.

The character Theodosia Simpson (based on the real-life worker of the same name), a 23-year old African-American woman, emerges as a leader. She’s willing to confront the foreman. Another character is a husband fighting hatred overseas. He calls for the “Double V” victory – against Hitler and against Jim Crow. Another is a union leader, a white organizer from the North. He is committed to building the union, but is a little naive about how entrenched Jim Crow attitudes are.

As the show progresses, love songs help to tell the story of how the union organized across the color line. It also unfolds that the song “We Shall Overcome” as we know it today came from these tobacco workers’ struggle.

“Love songs” is a somewhat ambiguous term in this show. It includes romantic plot lines but also love for humanity, which involves stopping hatred and segregation. There are whimsical notes: an actual “Jim Crow” character emerges, and sings about the “separate vs. equal” doctrine, among other things. Emma Goldman comes out onstage, falls in love with a worker, and they dance together. Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie and Paul Robeson – all of whom came to the Local 22 picket lines in the 1940s – sing as a trio.

It could be said there are two major themes – one is the story of the union, and one is the personal and family lives of the characters. Each theme has its own climax. The union plotline culminates in the courageous strike of the tobacco workers. On a more personal level, the black and white characters build relationships as they challenge racial segregation in their fight to form a union.

In real life, just as in the play, the strike ended in victory. The workers – with the help of the seasoned organizers – got a contract signed. Over the next few years, the tobacco workers of Local 22 built a strong membership that became known nationally. A woman named Moranda Smith was appointed to the national executive board of the union – the first African American to win such a position. Many of the segregated aspects of the factory were eliminated, and even the Jim Crow anti-voting restrictions in the town of Winston Salem were fought against and brought down as a result of this union campaign..

Paul Robeson, Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger all came down to sing and support Local 22. It was clear at that time what a pivotal moment this was in the battle against Jim Crow, and the central role labor could play.

However, over the next few years, Local 22 lost its battle to keep R.J. Reynolds organized. Claims that the union was “Communist-led” and engaged in “mixing races” conspired to end Local 22’s representation of workers at R.J. Reynolds. Also contributing to the union’s demise was a drumbeat of unfavorable articles by the Winston-Salem Journal and the unfair jailing of union leaders on trumped-up charges.

The story of Local 22 could have been lost to history. Luckily, Bob Korstad, a historian in North Carolina, wrote “Civil Rights Unionism,” which describes the victory of Local 22 and the courage of the strikers. Many others carry on the memory. A historic plaque was recently installed in Winston-Salem which commemorates Local 22 and this early victory against Jim Crow. And of course the song “We Shall Overcome” become known throughout the world, in part due to the struggle of these tobacco workers. It has become an anthem for social justice movements around the world. So we can truly say that Local 22 is gone but not forgotten, and “Love Songs from the Liberation Wars” keeps the memory alive.

[The musical previewed  at the Cedar Lane Unitarian Universalist Church in Kensington, Maryland, on  25 June 2012 and again at  the Washington Ethical Society in Washington, D.C., on 21 June 2014.]

19 May 2016


“I love work plays,” says British playwright Richard Bean (One Man, Two Guvnors).  “Work has hierarchy, hope, ambition, need, compromise, tragedy, and comedy.”  Bean has reason to know, largely from his own lived experience before turning to writing plays for a living.  “Work,” he continues, “is society touching the individual.  Work is the individual engaging in society.”  The  writer knows a little something of this aspect of human endeavor as well, as you’ll soon learn.  “Often the language is richer, saltier for sure, but also more revealing.”  And there you have three aspects of Bean’s creds as a playwright: a worker, someone familiar with the functioning of the human mind, and a writer with a practiced ear for both ordinary speech and a funny line.  All of these are manifested in his 1999 serio-comic study of men at work, Toast, in its U.S. première at 59E59 Theaters.

Richard Bean, 60 next month, was born in Hull, England, the East Yorkshire port city that’s also the home town of his younger colleague in the playwriting dodge, Tom Wells (Jumpers for Goalposts; see my report posted on 23 May 2015).  Bean’s father was a policeman and his mother was a hairdresser.  Hull, where Toast is set, is a port city of a quarter million inhabitants on the Humber Estuary, about 198 miles north of London and 61 miles east of Leeds.  (Hull has been named the U.K. City of Culture for 2017.)  After grammar school, when he was 18, Bean worked in a bread plant before leaving to study social psychology at Loughborough University in Leicestershire (108 miles southwest of Hull).  He worked as an occupational psychologist for 15 years in the personnel and training departments of factory businesses and as a stand-up comic from 1989 to 1994 before turning to playwriting; he’s said both professions have been useful to his writing, as has his life in Hull among the fishermen (Under the Whaleback, 2003) and his year at the bread factory, which became the setting for Toast

Coming to playwriting late in his life, he says he had “no connection with the arts” until he was 30.  “Theatre wasn’t part of my life,” Bean admits.  Having graduated with a science degree, Bean had little background in literature, so he began reading on his own after university.  “Specifically I started reading Henry Miller, [Jack] Kerouac, [John] Steinbeck, and [Joseph] Conrad—just for fun really,” the playwright explained, “but it was Henry Miller who corrupted me just through serendipity.”  Bean was working in the personnel office of a telecommunications company when he began reading Tropic of Capricorn, Miller’s account “of his life in New York and Brooklyn.”  Bean discovered that Miller, too, was employed in the personnel office of a telecommunications company—“and so, bit by bit, I started writing.”

Bean’s first attempts at writing led him into stand-up comedy.  He came to playwriting by chance, in a way, when he saw a production of David Storey’s play The Changing Room; the Naturalism of the staging was Bean’s first influence in theatrical style.  “I thought it was rather boring as I sat and watched it, and then theatre magic worked on me, I couldn’t get it out of my head, and then I realized how I might dramatize my year’s work at a mass production bread factory.”  That play became Toast

His work in the bread plant gave Bean more than just bread-baking stories:

The year I spent working in a factory was the best for becoming a writer because I was doing six 12 hour shifts a week standing listening to dialogue.  When you do boring factory work, if you’ve got the opportunity to talk you’re talking to entertain each other.  You go deeper and deeper and get more and more intimate.  For me that year spent working in the bakery was the best year of my life in terms of becoming a playwright.

Bean began writing plays in the early 1990s, penning some radio sketches and the libretto for an opera, Paradise of Fools (1995) by Stephen McNeff.  His first full-length play, Of Rats and Men, set in a psychology lab, was staged in 1996 at London’s Canal Cafe Theatre and went on to the Edinburgh Festival; he adapted the play for BBC Radio in 1997.  His next stage play, Bean’s first major work, was Toast in 1999, presented at the Royal Court Upstairs in London.  Since then, he’s written 25 plays, including a musical (Made in Dagenham, 2014) and his hit Broadway début, One Man, Two Guvnors, which premièred at the National Theatre’s Lyttleton Theatre in London in May 2011, directed by Nicholas Hytner, prior to going on tour in the United Kingdom before landing in London’s West End in November 2011.  It opened on Broadway in April 2012, winning the 2012 Tony for Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Play for James Corden and receiving six other Tony nominations; One Man also won three 2012 Drama Desk Awards and the 2012 Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding New Broadway Play.  In 2011 Bean became the first dramatist to win the Evening Standard Award for Best Play for two plays, One Man and The Heretic.  His future plans include two new plays to be staged in Hull in 2017 as part of the City of Culture year: The Hypocrite, about Hull’s part in the English Civil War of 1642-51, and an untitled play about stand-up comedians.

Bean’s original title for Toast was Wonderloaf, which happens to be the brand name of the bread the playwright spent 12 months making in the Hull factory.  But Homepride Spillers, the bakery company, objected and set their lawyers on Bean and the play was retitled just before opening at the Royal Court.  “I still actually have a ticket with Wonderloaf printed on it,” says Bean, one of the very few left, he claims.  After the hit début at the Royal Court, Toast was revived in March 2007 at the Hull Truck Theatre in Bean’s home town.  It was remounted again in August 2014 at the Park Theatre, London, by Snapdragon Productions, which subsequently went on tour in the U.K. from February to April 2016 before coming to New York City as part of the 59E59 Theaters’ Brits Off-Broadway 2016 series from 20 April to 22 May.  (A brief profile of the 59E59 Theaters appears in my report on Summer Shorts 2015, posted on 12 August 2015.)  The production opened in Theater A on 1 May and my friend Diana and I caught it on Saturday evening, 7 May. 

In April 2004, Brits Off Broadway débuted at the 59E59 Theater under the leadership of Elysabeth Kleinhans, the theaters’ artistic director, and Scottish-born executive producer Peter Tear; this season marks the annual tradition’s twelfth year of bringing provocative British theater to the U.S.  Along with 59E59’s main offerings, the 5A Season, Brits Off Broadway is one of the three main series presented by the Off Broadway facility.  The other two are Summer Shorts (on which I reported in the post referenced above) and East to Edinburgh (see my report on Bette Davis Ain’t for Sissies, 17 August 2015), both annual occurrences.  Brits Off Broadway is a festival of new works from British writers, performers, and companies, presenting between six and 12 productions in all three of 59E59’s houses during the months of April, May, and June. 

Brits Off Broadway draws presentations from across the British Isles, including the less-represented Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.  While there are shows from the National Theatre, the Bristol Old Vic, and the Leicester Haymarket Theatre, many are from small companies, from emerging and established talents alike.  “We’re bringing the stuff that would never, could never be seen on Broadway—small-scaled shows, one-person shows that deserve to find a wider audience but aren’t appropriate for commercial theaters uptown or downtown," explained Kleinhans.  59E59 scouts regularly visit Britain to select the best of British theater.  For theatergoers wary of festivals as “grab bags full of unknown, untested work,” the New York Times’ Christopher Isherwood assures them, “For Brits Off Broadway, Mr. Tear and Ms. Kleinhans have already done the hard work.  They’ve fixed the odds for you.”  In 2006, Isherwood dubbed the third festival “a highlight of the theatrical year in New York.”  

In addition to this season’s presentation of Bean’s first major work, Brits Off Broadway has offered productions of plays by such writers as Alan Ayckbourn, John Osborne, Peter Nichols, Steven Berkoff, Ian Kelly, Gary Owen from Wales, Northern Ireland’s Richard Dormer, and Scottish writer Gregory Burke; among the Brits Off Broadway productions have been numerous U.S. premières.  Casts have included such performers as two-time Oscar nominee Brenda Blethyn, Ewen Bremner, and Celia Imrie. 

Toast is set in the dirty, drab canteen (break room) of a Hull bread factory in 1975, where the workers spend their off-time.  The cast is made up of a crew of working-class men, including former trawlermen from when Hull was a busy fishing port, whose jobs are in jeopardy because the company has upgraded a newer plant over an hour’s drive away.  The owners have been neglecting the Hull bakery, which is constantly breaking down, and once it can no longer sustain its usefulness, it’ll be closed down.  (The workers don’t only have their livelihoods to worry about if the plant closes: for most of them, the factory’s what fills their days.  As one of them says, if they weren’t at work, they’d just be idle.)  Meanwhile, the workers are left alone in the bakery on a Sunday shift, as no management personnel come to the plant; as one of the workers puts it, the Hull factory’s a goldmine for the owners: “They don’t have to manage it, maintain it, or invest in it.”

The action begins as the workers assemble at the start of one Sunday-night shift.  The boss, Mr. Beckett (never seen, but the subject of shop talk and often on the other end of the occasional phone conversation), tells the shift foreman that an order went wrong earlier so the late shift will have to work until 4 a.m. baking 3,000 extra loaves of bread.  Reactions are mixed, but the men realize that the order must be filled.  As a clock above the entrance marks the time, the six bread-makers (soon joined by a seventh, the “spare wank,” whose presence as a relief worker is mandated by labor contract when a shift goes to 12 hours) come and go, either for their “half-hours” (meal break) or their “smokes” (10- or 15-minute tea breaks).  We get to know the men as they banter with one another.  (If you’re wondering where I got all that jargon and the translations, the theater kindly provides a glossary, necessary for both the work slang and the Yorkshire dialect they all speak.)

Blakey (Steve Nicolson) is the “chargehand,” the shift foreman (though he isn’t “management”), for which he’s paid a whole 10 pence more an hour than his co-workers.  Blakey must watch his back, though, because shop steward Colin (Will Barton—who vaguely resembles Walter Matthau when he played heavies) is brown-nosing Mr. Beckett.  (Is he named so resonantly because all the men are waiting for their own kind of Godot?  Is the factory canteen Bean’s industrial stand-in for a barren country road with its lone, leafless tree?)  Peter (Matt Sutton) hates his job at the bread plant but needs it badly and worries how he’ll be able to support his family if the plant closes.  Dezzie (Kieran Knowles), a former “deckie” on a fishing trawler (with disgusting stories to tell), has just moved to a new house—which has given his wife a sex drive that pleases him—and also delights Cecil (Simon Greenall) who loves to hear about it because “he isn’t getting any.”  (What else delights Cecil is goosing Peter from behind in a blitz attack.)  This leaves only the pitiable Nellie (Matthew Kelly) from the regular shift, a burnt-out shell of a man from working 80-hour weeks for 45 years (he started at the bakery when he was 14 and doesn’t expect to retire for another six years).  When the six shift-members have arrived, the “temp,” Lance (John Wark), who claims to be a mature student in social history but turns out to be very different from the articulate and well read fellow we meet at his arrival, shows up as the spare wank.

Small crises occur throughout the night—Nellie, the “mixer” (the guy who makes the dough), manages to lose his undershirt somehow and the workers have to find it lest it wind up in someone’s loaf of bread the next day—until shortly before quitting time a serious mishap takes place, threatening a shut-down of the oven.  If that occurs, it’d take eight hours for the oven to cool and another five for it to reheat.  The men’s jobs completely depend on avoiding that.  On their own, and not wanting to report the problem to Mr. Beckett until they’ve tried to fix it—even at the risk of their own lives—the seven bakery workers scramble to set things right before the shift ends.

In the course of two hours (including an intermission), Toast depicts (if you’ll pardon the pun) a slice of factory life more than a beginning-middle-and-end narrative.  The milieu’s a hermetically sealed environment, with its own customs and practices and its own language, some of it Yorkshire slang (sarnies for sandwiches, tatties for potatoes) and some of it bakery-worker jargon (spare wank, half-hour, smoke, chargehand, mixer).  It’s also a character study of sorts, except the “character” is a team, six long-time co-workers and one newcomer.  Toast shows us individuals engaging in one very specific society. 

Toast was a disappointment, however.  Not only was the New York Times review of the current production positive, but so were all the notices I looked up for various London stagings between 1999 and 2014, but the play doesn’t live up to the hype.  The acting and directing, however, are excellent (although the thick Yorkshire dialect is hard to follow).  It’s a Naturalistic play (with a hint of Pinterism), but it’s also a snapshot of one shift at a bread factory so there’s not really a plot or a theme—or a conclusion.  The shift ends, so the play just stops.  I haven’t seen any of Bean’s other work (including One Man), so I don’t know if his writing is usually this faux-documentary style—I presume his adaptations more or less follow the plots of the original sources, but I can’t guess about the others.  

I can’t argue with the truthfulness of Bean’s depiction of this world—in fact, my impression is that it’s very accurate, and certainly the performances ring true—but the play lacks dramatic impact beyond a few emotional and psychological highs that come and go without leaving much behind.  Not only do the characters generally shrug off all incidents during the shift, it’s pretty clear that there won’t be any repercussions the next day or anytime thereafter.  The only change this night, an accident really, is the introduction of Lance, who may or may not be unbalanced (he’s a patient at the De la Pole Hospital, a mental asylum), but all he manages to do is toss a few momentary surprises at a couple of the workers, unbeknownst to any of the others so there aren’t any ripples beyond the moment.  Lance doesn’t actually disrupt the night’s work, much less any of the men’s focus.  Only the prospect of the plant’s closing, throwing the men all out of work, hangs over the characters like Joe Btfsplk’s dark cloud—and it’s a rumor which may or may not happen and isn’t actually in the offing during the play, making it only a subliminal threat.

I said, though, that the Snapdragon production of Toast is excellent.  Eleanor Rhode, director of this revival from the 2014 Park Theatre presentation that went on tour around England, stages the 59E59 visit, produced in association with London’s Jagged Fence Theater, with sureness and clarity.  On James Turner’s shabby canteen set, strewn with months of tossed trash (watch the wastebasket as it overflows with used teabags) and flour, under harsh, overhead industrial lighting by Mike Robertson, Rhode creates a whole world inhabited by just six people (with the occasional temporary addition of an outsider).  We can spy bits of the rest of the baking plant through the canteen doors’ glass panels (also clouded with flour dust), but it’s a hazy, ambiguous “elsewhere” that mostly exists for us from the evocative noises contributed by sound designer Max Pappenheim; the only real place is the one room where life happens.  (For the most part, except for Lance, who wears his street clothes—a little neater and nattier than what the others arrive in—the men wear work clothes of well-used white trousers, shirts, and aprons and flour-covered workmen’s brogans.  The look was designed by Holly Rose Henshaw.) 

Even though it was difficult to follow all the Yorkshire-inflected dialogue (that’s the same region in which Downton Abbey is set, but the TV show, even among the downstairs folk, was created with a trans-Atlantic audience in mind; Bean made no concession for us monolingual Americans), believing the truthfulness of the bakery men is never in question.  (It became more effective not to struggle to catch and interpret each word or phrase but just to let the underlying intentions, nicely conveyed by the cast’s physicalizations, communicate to me.)   What these guys do and how they do it was as real for me as a cinéma verité, and the collective work among the actors, whether there are two men on stage or all seven, was actually thrilling see.  (When the six regular shift workers are alone, I had no doubt they knew each other intimately and over a long time.  Lance’s presence suitably makes the others a little hesitant.)  If the play’s composed as a picture of a certain moment in the life of the bakery, Rhode doesn’t impose a structure that Bean didn’t intend: the performance seems to unfold in its natural rhythm, just as a Sunday night shift would (if 12 hours could be compressed into two).  There are lulls, silences, and slow intervals, interrupted now and then by frenetic, high-energy interludes.  As an exercise in acting and directing, you couldn’t want a better example.

Within the ensemble, each character stands out in his own way.  Arguably the most salient is Nellie (actually Walter Nelson, but everyone call him Nellie even though he prefers Walter), compellingly played with lumbering, monosyllabic aloofness—he’s part of the shift, but he’s not one of the gang—by Matthew Kelly.  He’s the old man of the team—not so much because he’s older than everyone else (I’m not so sure he is), but because he’s worked in the plant forever, it seems, having given it his childhood, his youth, and now his middle age.  (One description of Kelly’s bakery worker that I like—because it’s both perceptive and apt—emphasized “his floury hair and doughy features resembling the bread he bakes.”)  One co-worker calculates that Nellie’s baked 220 million loaves in his time at the factory.  Nellie’s not so much a leader as the shift mascot.  Kelly, an Olivier Award–winner (for Lennie in Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, 2004), plays Nellie with a mix of one part tiredness and one part resignation.  In fact, when Lance, in his first time revealing his strangeness, tells Nellie he foresees that the old mixer’s going to die tonight, Nellie’s nonplussed. 

John Wark’s Lance resembles a slimmer Josh Mostel (from the ’70s) or Wayne Knight (from the ’80s), but somewhat more troublesome.  He shifts from comically peculiar to mysterious and weird without passing through any intermediate stages—and it’s hard to tell, the first time he does his eerie bit, whether he’s some kind of other-worldly creature Bean invented to tip over the Naturalistic world he’d maintained up till then, or some kind of kook.  He pretty much kept me guessing, although on his second go I was fairly certain he was just unbalanced somehow, until Blakey supplied some missing facts.  It’s regrettable that Bean doesn’t make more use of this character, who, in the end, has little effect on the action.  Wark creates a stand-out figure in the insular world of Toast but never really gets to go anywhere with it.

The other characters on the shift, though each is delineated distinctly by both Bean’s script and the actors’ characterizations, really only exist in association with their shiftmates.  Steve Nicolson’s Blakey, who’s spent some time in jail, is hard and cheerless, with divided loyalties as the shift chargehand who’s responsible to Mr. Beckett and the company on one side and to the men of his shift who depend on him to maintain their livelihoods on the other.  As shop steward Colin, Will Barton is subtly two-faced, appearing to look out for his coworkers as fellow union men but eying Blakey’s job and the 10 p.-an-hour raise that goes with it.  Cecil is the jokester in the gang, and Simon Greenall plays him with a slight edge that made me wonder if his jokes and clowning aren’t just a might desperate, even cruel, to fill an essentially empty life.  (Cecil’s the character who says, “I’m either here or I’m fishing, and I don’t really like fishing.”)  Kieran Knowles’s former deckie Dezzie, the youngest on the team and a man with more strength than smarts (he can’t remember his new address or phone number), is focused on his new wife and new home—he’s thinking ahead to his half-hour when he plans to rush home for a few minutes with the wife—and keeps himself at a slight remove from his shiftmates.  Peter, as played by Matt Sutton, is the shift’s cynic and anti-establishmentarian who grouses about nearly everything—and is the butt of most of Cecil’s hijinks.  With long, stringy hair, he wears flared jeans (remember bellbottoms?) instead of the white work pants the other regulars wear, making him look a little like a hippie in this working-class enclave, almost as out of place as Lance.  He brings a deck of cards to work with him to pass the time on his breaks, but he’s also quick to anger and challenge Blakey to a fight. 

Show-Score, the website that tallies theater reviews, reported that 59E59’s Toast received 68% positive reviews (of 22 surveyed), 14% negative, and 18% mixed.  Overall, the site gave the production a score of 72.  (I recalculated the stats posted on the site because Show-Score included U.K. reviews of earlier presentations.  I counted only reviews of the New York performance.)  Among the highest scoring notices was Ben Brantley’s in the New York Times.  Brantley called Toast a “trenchant . . . comedy of the rhythms of a blue-collar workday” that’s “a shrewd and poignant study of how rote work defines those who perform it.”  The play, the Timesman observed, “isn’t easy to classify”: “It combines the frenzy of farce with the creeping incremental detail of kitchen-sink realism. And there’s always the sense of a desperate emptiness lurking beneath the rowdy humor.”  He reported that “as directed by Eleanor Rhode,” the play’s “acted by a vigorous cast.” In the end, Brantley declared, “Joking, teasing and roughhousing—like making bread in an assembly line—are all just diversions to keep people from thinking about the final nothingness that awaits them. . . .  That ‘Toast’ is shadowed by this awareness doesn’t keep it from being boisterously entertaining.”  In the Epoch Times, Barry Bassis called Toast “a comedy but with serious undertones” and a “winner from across the pond” that “has an air of authenticity.”  Bassis affirmed, “And the cast is superb.” 

In her brief paragraph on the production, Elisabeth Vincentelli warned in the New York Post, “Even if you loved ‘One Man, Two Guvnors’ on Broadway . . .  you may want to think twice before checking out ‘Toast’” because “it’s a slog.”  “Nothing much happens,” Vincentelli complained, “and the elliptical dialogue is made even more impenetrable by the working-class northern English accents.”  The Post reviewer acknowledged, “Things marginally pick up in the second act—if you make it that far,” but then concluded, “Sadly, this loaf takes way too long to rise.”   Cautioning that Toast isn’t “for the gluten intolerant,” Alexis Soloski wrote in the U.S. edition of the Guardian, that the play’s “a flour-crusted portrait of a group of men working the weekend shift at a bread factory” that “resembles a social realist drama (with a few less successful gestures toward the preternatural).  Toast “also displays . . . mordant and sometimes cruel humor,” observed Soloski.  “The situation is somewhat formulaic and so is the plotting,” the Guardian review-writer noted, “but Bean manages something distinctive, too, giving each of the men a distinctive voice.”  Soloski characterized the production as “finely detailed,” but demurred slightly, adding, “perhaps too finely.  The scurf of flour that coats the break room had a way of creeping up the theater’s center aisle and the factory thrum of Max Pappenheim’s sound design confused at least one patron, who asked an usher to silence the noise.”  (That never happened the night I saw the play—but it suggests how Naturalistic the staging was.)  “The performances are playful and mostly un-showy,” continued the reviewer, “and the 70s dress and hairstyles, courtesy costume designer Holly Rose Henshaw, are a slightly repulsive treat.” 

In the New Yorker’s “Goings On About Town” column, the reviewer noted that Bean “hymns the pleasures and the sorrows of hard work in this genial comedy.”  The notice concluded (with a good pun!), “Leavened with pungent slang and bawdy humor—the ensemble works together as smoothly as the best assembly line—the play conjures a bygone world of industrial work, as doomed to obsolescence as the bakers themselves.”  In Time Out New York, Sandy MacDonald dismissed Toast, saying that “it’s tough to drum up much interest in this 1999 throwback” as Bean “evidently learned a thing or two in the wake of this, his first play—like how to jump right into the action and not waste a good half-hour establishing character.”  MacDonald had complaints about the acting as well, asserting that “Kelly cartoonishly indicates Nellie’s fright and confusion rather than authentically embodying the emotions, so the effect comes at one remove” and that “Wark telegraphs Lance’s oddity so pointedly (abrupt tonal shifts, bugged eyes) that you’d have to be facing a clear and present threat to your livelihood not to notice that there’s something seriously amiss.”

David Finkle, Huffington Post’s “First Nighter,” putting Toast in a new subgenre he named “gang comedy-dramas,” linked Bean’s play with Dominique Morisseau’s Skeleton Crew at the Atlantic Theater Company (Sandy MacDonald made the same connection in TONY) in which “blue-collar workers gather at the rest-and-relaxation room and get caught up in their factory’s potentially shutting down.”  Toast is “a strong play for the season getting underway” and awarded “a championship bread loaf . . . to the seven character men who make up the cast” and affirmed that Bean “has the right cast, the right director in Eleanor Rhode and the right set designer in James Turner” to pull off his chronicle of “the slow death of the industrial economy in England.”  On Theater Online, Heather Violanti described the 59E59 production of Toast as “exquisite” due to “Rhode’s clear-eyed direction and the ensemble[‘]s sincere, never-indulgent performances” which “bring Bean’s prodigious work to brilliant, heartfelt life.”  The play’s focus is “on the hard realities of working class,” though “Bean wraps up the play’s conflicts a little too neatly.”  Nonetheless, “the richly drawn, empathetic characters and expertly observed sense of workplace dynamics keep the play compelling.”  The company creates “an effortless, finely observed sense of ensemble” by which “you believe these men have been working together for years.”  In conclusion, Violanti dubbed Toast “a not-to-be-missed production” and punned that it’s “perhaps the toast of this year’s Brits Off Broadway festival.”

Susan Hasho of Theater Pizzazz affirmed, “The pace of this play is slow and the payoff might seem subtle, except that this production affords a feast of notable character actors, in perfect ensemble, performing small, detailed moments beautifully full of life and significance.”  Toast “[s]lowly . . . reveals the idiosyncratic connections between the men and the hopeless strain they are under” as Bean “creates a microcosm in which we can see a world of despair” while “the humor in the play humanizes the plight in both stark and gentle ways.”  The TP reviewer asserts that “as an audience,” we “are gathered into this life by the pace and the intricacy of the characters and their relationships.”  On TheaterScene, Rachel Goddard thought that Bean “allows the audience” for Toast “to be the fly on the wall of a bread factory break room”  Toast “is full of humor with moments of intense drama,” asserted Goddard, “[w]ith ingenuously boorish and precisely written characters” portrayed by “a strong ensemble cast.”  Characterizing Rhode’s direction as “brilliant,” TheaterScene’s reviewer felt, “Overall the performances were impressive and gave a slightly stagnant plot, life and motion.”

Asya Danilova of the blog OnStage felt that the audience of Toast “truly feels as though they are traveling in space and time” to the time and place of the play’s setting.  But “Toast is often unpredictable,” warned the reviewer. The canteen set, wrote Danilova, “is meticulously buil[t] and painfully realistic” and Pappenheim’s soundscape “is as subtle as it is scrupulous.”  The “brilliant cast . . . delivers some warm and gentle comedy,” though Danilova refused to call the play either a comedy or a “workplace drama.”  She didn’t put a label on Toast, but described it “as a tapestry of charismatic bread factory workers dealing with the crisis and enjoy it this way.”  The OnStage blogger summed up with: “But to me the most interesting experience was being caught when I wanted plot ‘candy’, that metaphysical twist, and didn’t quite get it.  Instead of that I got more ‘bread’, the everyday peoples’ collisions.  The bread is more nutritious than candy though.  When it’s made just right it’s the greatest food you can have.”  On Broadway World, Marina Kennedy described Toast as “a humorous, yet intensely realistic depiction of factory life” through which Bean was able “to capture his subject perfectly.”  The production’s “stellar cast” delivers “a collective performance that is absolutely compelling” which, Kennedy thought, makes “an entertaining and appealing show that brings a real sense of humanity to the stage.” 

Stage Buddy’s Tania Fisher declared, “If you’re a fan of British theater and want to enjoy some fine acting, then you may want to help yourself to a slice of Toast.”  Fisher called Toast a “quirky play” that “tells the amusing story of an English bread factory in 1975” and generates “a strong sense of ensemble among the all-male cast” who “portray fully-realized characters with great skill and talent”; designer Turner’s set “reaches new heights in its impeccable attention to detail.”  Though our Stage Buddy found the first act “rather slow paced,” she reported that act two was “faster paced.”  Troubles with the Yorkshire accent and “the British sense of humor” aside, Fisher concluded that “it is easy to warm to every character in this offbeat story.”  CurtainUp’s review-writer Charles Wright characterized Toast as “a slice-of-life comedy about hardships on the bottom rung of the industrial ladder” whose “seven actors, under director Eleanor Rhode, are giving performances as balanced and precise as a top-flight chamber-music ensemble.”  Toast’s “physical world,” as envisioned by Turner and Robertson, “is sunless and grime-encrusted, with a dusting of flour” and “just right,” asserted Wright, “and entirely believable.” 

[What you don’t get from my review survey above—because I didn’t quote all the attempts at humor—are the myriad puns on bread and baking that nearly every reviewer slipped into his or her notice.  (I did it, too, a little, but I yield the field to the many other writers who outstripped my poor efforts.)  Some plays just seem to lend themselves to that sort of writing—just as Something Rotten!, on which I just reported (14 May), called the review-writers to come up with musical-related and Shakespeare-oriented quips—and a play about baking bread is just too much of a temptation to resist.  Some puns were better than others, of course.  I guess some writers just rose to the occasion and others simply fell flat.  (Sorry.  Couldn’t help myself)]