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Aubergine review a tender but overcooked play about food and loss

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Can turtle soup heal the rift between a father and son? This play about the emotional uses of food is poignant, but its philosophical maxims are too sweet

We eat to live, of course. But we eat for other reasons, too. For comfort, for excitement, for indulgence, for prestige. Julia Chos Aubergine a tender play both incisive and contrived explores the social and emotional uses of food.

A man in his 60s, Jung-Sok (Stephen Park), is dying of cirrhosis of the liver. His son, Ray (Tim Kang), has set up his fathers hospital bed in the dining room, one of the plays somewhat blunt ironies, as Jung-Sok now refuses to eat. Another of these ironies: Ray is a chef, a mtier his father has never endorsed.

The man hates my cooking, Ray explains. He hates it. The fact of it. Its womens work, its low class, its uneducated. But when an uncle (Joseph Steven Yang) arrives from Korea, Ray is charged with making a soup that might soothe his father. (In this, the play has links to Chos earlier work, The Language Archive, in which a character achieved serenity through baking.)

Cho is a precise writer and a lyrical one. And yet, in plays like The Piano Teacher, Durango and The Language Archive she evinces a particular interest in what cant or wont be said what oft was thought, but never expressed. Here theres real poignancy in Rays attempts to gain approval from his father, no longer capable of speech, and to communicate with his uncle, who does not speak English. Ray conscripts his ex-girlfriend, Cornelia (a splendid Sue Jean Kim), as a translator, even as hes unable to articulate his love for her.

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A bite befor dying: Sue Jean Kim, Stephen Park and Joseph Steven Yang in Aubergine. Photograph: Joan Marcus/2016 Joan Marcus

Under Kate Whoriskeys direction, these scenes are skillful and affecting, cruel and kind. There are wordless pleasures here, too, like the way Yangs uncle kneels at his brothers bedside or how Kangs Ray handles a turtle perhaps destined for the soup pot.

But Cho interleaves these insightful scenes with somewhat forced monologues in which each character describes the best meal that he or she has ever eaten a pastrami sandwich, a pod of okra, a bucket of fried chicken. Each of these speeches is elegantly written, but these seem like rather blatant demonstrations of Chos skills and concerns rather than vital components of the piece.

And within the scenes, she indulges her fondness for philosophical maxims, which sometimes seem quietly profound and at other times cloying. Too many of them are put into the mouth of Lucien (Michael Potts), a hospice nurse who was once a refugee. He presents Ray with the vegetable of the title and inducts him into the mysteries of dying with aphorisms like, Knowing where a loved one will die, knowing how this is a gift. Is it?

Yet beyond Luciens somewhat maudlin words lie one of the welcome surprises of Chos drama. What had seemed a play about food and appetite is ultimately a play about death and loss and the compensations that help us to bear it love, care, a brick of instant ramen.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2016/sep/12/aubergine-review-new-york-julia-cho

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