NEW YORK — What’s for dinner? How about a rich stew of multi-generational family communication failures, served with a tender side dish of unspoken love spiced with subtle comic seasoning? And for dessert, some acceptance of death topped off with life-affirming epiphanies?
The attempt to create a perfect meal to communicate with someone else can be fraught with a complex mixture of memories and hopes, which Julia Cho captures beautifully in her new play, “Aubergine.”
The New York premiere, directed with delicate precision by Kate Whoriskey, opened Monday night off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons. Cho, a winner of the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, imbues her meditation on family interactions with gentle humor and quiet simplicity.
Tim Kang is outstanding as stoic, French-trained chef Ray, a single Korean-American man in his late 30s who returns to his suburban family home to care for his terminally ill, estranged father. Kang’s repressed demeanor is occasionally ruptured by bursts of feeling that pull the audience into Ray’s hard-to-crack sphere.
Ray’s Korean-speaking girlfriend, Cornelia, is played with perky respectfulness by Sue Jean Kim. A modern young woman who appreciates the traditions and foibles of older generations, Cornelia shares many of Ray’s cultural touchstones, especially the weird relationships with food their parents had. Cornelia helps Ray communicate with his non-English-speaking uncle (a heartfelt portrayal by Joseph Steven Yang), who rushes to his brother’s side from their homeland once he learns he’s dying.
Michael Potts provides a serenely compelling presence as Ray’s father’s caregiver, Lucien, a refugee from a foreign country where near-starvation in camps gave him a special appreciation for the meaning and abundance of food in America. He provides Ray with gentle, comforting wisdom, telling him, “A peaceful death: This is a wealth beyond compare.”
While Ray struggles to find a perfect meal that will give his cheap-ramen-loving father some peace, he and his uncle seek ceremonies and transitions to help themselves let go of the dying. Cho piles on a few redundant although lovely vignettes that lengthen the play, including brief appearances by Jessica Love as a former “foodie” who drives home the lesson that the most simple of foods can be the best, when shared with love.