Review: DINNER AND CAKE at Everyman Theatre

World Premiere by playwright and actor Tuyet Thi Pham

By: Sep. 15, 2022
Review: DINNER AND CAKE at Everyman Theatre

Everyman Theatre offers up the world premiere of DINNER AND CAKE by actor/playwright Tuyết Th Phm to open its 2022/2023 season. If you are still emerging from your pandemic cocoon, this is the perfect first course to whet your appetite for more dramatic delights.

Pham's play is a slice of life many of us have been served, but she changes the menu to reveal new insights and perspectives. The use of language, the nuanced performances and the sophisticated design combine to create a story both elegant and emotional.

Two sets of in-laws meet in Washington, D.C. for the first time. Mr. and Mrs. Tran (Dinh James Doan and Tuyet Thi Pham) arrive from Vietnam to meet Mr. Murray Drumming (Bruce Randolph Nelson) and Mrs. Joyce Drumming (Helen Hedman). Their children are delayed, so it is up to their friend Mylinh (Carolina Do) to act as translator and diplomat.

The children that are bringing these cultures together remain significantly absent. What has drawn them together is unique to their life as a couple. What we are presented with are strangers who must learn to build bridges on their own without the benefit of youth and love.

The formality of one culture is often set against the over-enthusiasm of the other. Notice the Trans first names are respectfully omitted as the closeness/age/status of the individuals in a relationship determines name usage in many Asian societies.

Director Paige Hernandez coordinates these disparate character stories with finesse accompanied by the striking set design by Se Hun Oh.

Pham plays the role of Mrs. Tran as delightfully acerbic and politely prickly. She is a model of stoicism and at first seems cold to her American hosts. She is not pleased with the situation and one icy glance lets everyone know it. Thanks to Pham's finely tuned performance, the layers beneath the steely reserve slowly reveal a remarkable survivor and loving if bewildered mother.

Mrs. Tran's American counterpart Joyce is the classic well-intentioned but energetically clueless Western woman. Hedman manages to portray both extreme amiability and suppressed superiority. The idea that she is secretly bigoted would absolutely horrify Joyce. After all she lived overseas with her husband for many years and loves, loves, loves Vietnam and the world in general. Unfortunately, she is always too busy trying to be popular to learn anything.

The Americans want to be liked. The Vietnamese want to be respected.

Mr. Tran is also a stoic, even more reserved than his wife. Doan does a remarkable job in communicating through the character's silence. Like his wife and other survivors, he has been trained through hardship to reserve his energy and observe his environment. When he does speak, it makes an impact.

Nelson stikes the perfect pitch as the affable Murray, more knowing than his wife but still clumsy in his attempts to cross cultures. He is proof that you can travel and work globally but still exist in a bubble of ignorance. He operates in the middle of his wife's misguided idealism and the Trans' iron-willed dismay.

At the heart of the play and the heart of the conflict is Mylinh. Do's sympathetic characterization is the bridge between many destinations. Every first generation American will immediately recognize everything Mylinh goes thru as the translator between two cultures that don't really understand each other.

Mylinh wants to honor her ancestry but feels disconnected from it. The Trans are concerned about her devotion to tradition while the Murrays' lean on her to diffuse the tension and make the Trans like them. Do deftly plays all aspects of a person caught in the middle of a problem that has somehow become part of her own life. She knows she is representative of both sides and must wear the mantle of American exceptionalism where cultures meet, blend and become something more than either one separately. To complicate things, she is also an awkward stand-in for the two offspring that seem to have ghosted their parents.

Do's interactions with each of the other four characters create deeply moving moments. She knows the Murrays better, but feels the Trans' sorrow and strength. She is the American hope and the long-lost daughter, the poster-child of one society and the essence of another. Between her and Mrs. Tran there develops an understanding about things lost and gained that will move you to tears.

Every family has its culture and every culture has its family traditions. The process of introducing in-laws or blending families is fraught with potential misunderstandings in the easiest of circumstances. We have multiple ways to communicate with each other, but no sure way to understand the meaning behind the words and to realize that what is not said is just as important as what is spoken.

The play takes place in pre-September 11th America where the US still held on to its beloved nation status as a beacon of hope for all humanity. Since then, we can see just how much of that image has unraveled, how little we understand the world beyond our borders and how much we have to learn about ourselves. DINNER AND CAKE inspires us to take on the challenge to find those connections lost in translation.

DINNER AND CAKE runs now through October 12th at the Everyman Theatre located at 315 W.Fayette St. For more information, call (410) 752-2208 or go to