Empanada Loca Review: Daphne Rubin-Vega as Sweeney Todd of New York

EmpanadaLoca01photobyMonique_CarboniDaphne Rubin-Vega, the original Mimi in the original Rent, is so good portraying the initially endearing Dolores and eight other characters in “Empanada Loca, “which has now opened at Labyrinth Theater, that I didn’t realize the play written and directed by Aaron Mark was supposed to be “horror theater” until it was too late. Yes, I know, they make it clear that it’s based on the Legend of Sweeney Todd.

But Dolores a cannibal? She’s more like D-Lo from the neighborhood.

The play begins in unnerving pitch black. After too long a wait, she emerges into a shadowy light (kudos to Bradley King’s lighting design), and we see she’s in front of a massage table in a tunnel deep beneath the subway. If she’s wary of a stranger, she’s also warm, reassuring, and she sits cross-legged on her massage table, and starts telling her story.

It’s a very New York story, told in the language of the New York streets, with familiar New York places, and a sense of New York neighborhoods.

Her father was a door man on the Upper West Side (“that’s a pretty good job, believe it or not, cause he got benefits and good Christmas tips and shit”) but began drinking once her mother, a police officer, got shot to death when Dolores was nine years old. Still, Dolores went to Hunter College for two years, studying to be an urban planner.

Then in Washington Heights she fell for Dominic.

“Dominic helped me study, Dominic rubbed my shoulders. Dominic cooked for me, my dad never cooked for me.”

But Dominic was a drug dealer.

Things went downhill from there, but not straight downhill, and not in a way much different from what’s happened to many New Yorkers. And there are some bright spots – she picked up a trade, as a masseuse, which explains the massage table.

It is more than half-way through the 100-minute show that things start turning….Sweeney Toddish. In one way, I would have loved to have had this play remain a regular New York story.

But it is, as promised, a smart, scary adaptation of the Legend of Sweeney Todd,in which we meet all the principal characters, transposed to a New York neighborhood – a  transgender teenager named Nellie,  Luis, the son of the original owner of the local empanada store, who has always had a thing for Dolores as well as a secret passion, and various gentrifying neighbors who become the victims. And we learn more than we want to know about Dolores, in a play that is horrifying and also sometimes funny in its horror, and horrifying that it’s funny, and perverse and queasy and disgusting too. Perfect, in other words, for Halloween.

Empanada Loca

Labyrinth Theater

Written and directed by Aaron Mark

Cast: Daphne Rubin-Vega

Running time: 100 minutes with no intermission

Tickets: $30 to $40

Empanada Loca is scheduled to run through November 8, 2015.

Update: Extended to November 15.

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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