Fresh-faced Samira Wiley, a SAG winner as Poussey Washington in “Orange Is the New Black,” is a captivating young actor. (That smile is a traffic-stopper.) In “Daphne’s Dive,” the new play by Pulitzer Prize-winning scribe Quiara Alegria Hudes premiering at Signature Theater, Wiley plays a throwaway child who is adopted by the owner of a grungy but popular neighborhood bar in North Philadelphia. Over the years, she becomes a kind of mascot for the local bar patrons and a symbol of the inherent goodness of their extended family. It’s a sweet play, but it doesn’t have much heft.
Set designer Donyale Werle draws on universal barroom imagery — scarred countertops, beat-up barstools, sticky bottles, and Christmas lights that never switch off — to capture that ineffable come-hither vibe of your favorite neighborhood watering hole. The word “comfortable” comes to mind.
This particular dive is owned by a sturdy, big-hearted but solitary woman named Daphne (Vanessa Aspillaga, looking grumpy) who treats her band of regular patrons like needy children. Pablo (a spirited Matt Saldivar) is an explosive artist who paints still-lifes of people’s garbage. Rey (Gordon Joseph Weiss, mellow) is a quiet older guy who wears ratty clothes but has enough money to commission Pablo to paint mermaids on his motorcycle. And Jenn (a fluttery KK Moggie) is a performance artist who organizes colorful street scenes for lefty political causes. Waving a banner celebrating “Peace. Liberty. Ecology. Democracy,” Jenn keeps exhorting her friends and neighbors to “Wake up!” and join her sit-ins, dance-ins and love-ins.
Although Daphne treats these barflies like family, her only actual relative is her sister Inez (the vivacious Daphne Rubin-Vega), a vivid personality who glories in both her humble Puerto Rican roots and her materialist tastes. She’ll proudly move to an upscale part of town, but plant a guiro vine (“more Puerto Rican than a crucifix in the rearview”) on the lawn.
Her husband, Acosta (Carlos Gomez, down-to-earth and very likeable), is a successful businessman. No sob story is too preposterous to win his favors, and he’s very much at home manning a barstool in his sister-in-law’s bar, generously spreading his wealth around the neighborhood.
Ruby, the young girl Wiley plays with singular intelligence and feeling, drops into this cozy scene at the age of eleven, after escaping from Social Services when the cops come to haul her parents off to jail. Everyone falls in love with Ruby, whose absolute innocence, Hudes intimates, will cleanse their souls and change their lives.
But the patrons of Daphne’s Dive are decent folks to begin with, the sort of people who don’t hesitate to extend a helping hand to members of their tight community. So that plot line is a non-starter.
Unfortunately, there are no other plot lines. Unlike the more ambitious plays in the trilogy that contains Hudes’ Pulitzer Prize-winning “Water by the Spoonful” and turns on the experiences of a young soldier named Elliott, the wellbeing of this neighborhood is not inextricably bound up in Ruby’s fate. More often than not, Daphne’s friends seem to detach themselves from the crazy old world. (“Outside those doors, chaos, insanity.”)
Hudes writes juicy dialogue for these colorful characters. That Inez, for one, has some mouth on her (“Who says I’m going to hell for wearing a diaphragm?”), and Rubin-Vega delivers her explosive lines with gusto. Wiley’s wide-eyed Ruby is also a joy to watch as she matures in grace and intelligence. (“What’s a diaphragm?”)
But without a plot or something of consequence at stake, the play slips into the conventional vein of those static ensemble pieces set in diners, barbershops, hair salons, and bars. Not even director Thomas Kail, who brought such joyful inventiveness to “Hamilton” and “In the Heights,” manages to pump some life into that static genre format. Barroom plays are fun to visit, but you don’t really want to live there.