Solo shows tend to be showcases for talented actors, but the shows themselves may be variable. Sometimes they are mere vehicles for a talented star; sometimes they are more than vehicles. And once in a while, as in Empanada Loca, with Rent alumna Daphne Rubin-Vega, the star provides jet fuel for the vehicle. Playing a woman named Dolores in Aaron Mark’s precisely calibrated, terrific script, Rubin-Vega demonstrates that she is, even without singing, an astonishing talent.
As the show opens, Dolores spots the audience and wonders how we managed to find her. She’s in a deep disused subway tunnel in the New York system. She’s hiding out, and around her, in Bradley King’s astonishingly dim but effective lighting, one can barely make out a grate on the upstage wall and a large massage table. She is not used to visitors, although she says, “They still come down, sometimes they come, when they're expanding. They like this tunnel ’cause I got electricity—I set these lights up myself—and I got privacy, ’cause this is as far down as you can go. This is one of those tunnels the city gave up on before they even laid the tracks.”
No longer apprehensive, soon she is unspooling her life story, and Rubin-Vega brings warmth and passion to a tale that involves hard knocks and gruesome twists. “I’m only down here ’cause I'm not goin’ back to prison,” she says. “Thirteen years, they locked my ass up.”
She started out an ordinary college kid, a student at Hunter. “I was gonna be a urban planner,” she recalls. But her Aussie roommate wanted weed one day, and Dolores went along and met Dominic, a drug dealer. At the same time, her mother died and her father, a doorman, went to pieces and couldn’t take care of her. So she moved in with Dominic, whom she protected from prison after the police picked her up. After coming out, she went looking for Dominic and the money they’d stashed, and both were gone. The old neighborhood had one or two familiar faces, but nobody knew where Dominic was. But she spots a favorite haunt, Empanada Loca, which makes the small pies that are central to Latin cuisine. Inside is Luis, son of the proprietor she once knew; she knew Luis, too, but he was a child and is now a young man. He gives Dolores his late father’s room and even helps her drum up business by putting a sign in his window for her massage business. It’s a skill she learned in prison from her lesbian protectress, Tabitha.
Mark, who also directs lovingly, provides ample humor. Describing Dominic, Dolores remarks that she noticed he had “fingers like sausages” and bawdily suggests what one might extrapolate from that. The script is vivid, evocative and specific. There are mentions of a “purple hat,” a “red glass bong,” and at a Planet Fitness gym in the neighborhood, “these white chicks in polo shirts working there, they’re making green smoothies or some shit.” Dolores momentarily forgets what her father choked to death on, then remembers: “shish kabob.”
Eventually complications arise between Dolores and Luis, and the story grows darker. There’s a tip-off in the program about the inspiration for Mark’s show, but it’s better if you haven’t read it. There’ll come a point when the savvy theatergoer will suddenly cotton to the source—it’s been used in a famous musical—but Mark has gone back to original publications of the story and made enough alterations in place and character that it takes a major plot point to turn the audience member in the right direction. Suffice it to say, it’s a dark place that Dolores and Luis end up in.
Clad only in a black hoodie and black slacks, Rubin-Vega is a terrific guide to this hellish underworld, colored simply and darkly by David Meyer in shades of charcoal. When the story turns cringe-worthy, she is still a commanding presence. It’s not just a good performance; it feels like a landmark for a consummately gifted actress.
The solo show Empanada Loca plays through Nov. 8 at the Labyrinth Theater Company (155 Bank St. between Washington St. and the West Side Highway) in Manhattan. Evening performances are at 7 p.m. on Oct. 25 and 26, and Nov. 1, 3 and 8. They are at 8 p.m. on Oct. 28–31 and Nov. 4–7. For tickets, visit labtheater.org.