The first thing that strikes you when you arrive at the WP Theater production of Sancocho is the smell. Before you get to your seat, before you even see the stage, the rich, mouth-watering scent of sancocho envelops you. (Vegans, beware!) The titular stew is central to all aspects of the play, from Raul Abrego’s intricately designed New York kitchen set to Christin Eve Cato’s script, which offers the dish as both the thing that divides a family and the way to bridge that familial divide. Unfortunately, the theatrical ingredients don’t quite come together, resulting in a somewhat unfulfilling concoction.
The story’s premise, two sisters trying to work out their relationship issues, is solid. Younger sister Renata, pregnant for the first time, has come to her much older sister Caridad’s apartment to discuss their dying father’s will. They end up talking about all the things they haven’t discussed over the years, ranging from their father’s preference for the lighter-skinned and more successful Renata, to the abuela Caridad loved and Renata never met, to their father’s extramarital affair, to Caridad’s dead twin brother, to the abuse Renata suffered at the hands of Caridad’s then-husband, Juan. And throughout, Caridad teaches her sister how to cook sancocho, passing down the Puerto Rican heritage Renata so desperately wants.
The problem is that there are so many subjects covered, the characters aren’t allowed to fully explore any of them. It is a case of quantity over quality. Just as something is getting interesting, they move on to the next topic. Without the depth each subject deserves, the play starts to feel like a laundry list of dramatic ideas rather than the strong relationship play it aspires to be. And this ninety-minute slice of their lives crosses the border into melodrama.
The play’s strength lies in its verisimilitude, notably Abrego’s wonderfully realistic New York City kitchen. Everything in it feels right, from the shelf of spices to the top of the cabinet utilized as extra storage. Harry Nadal’s costumes and María-Cristina Fusté’s lighting fill in details convincingly, creating a very pleasing visual landscape. Germán Martinez’s sound design adds texture. The functioning stove fills the theater with the smell of sancocho near the end of the play—an effect that might have packed a greater punch if the air hadn’t been heavy with the scent before the action began. Nevertheless, there’s real food in that pot, and I bet it tastes terrific.
Both Zuleyma Guevara as Caridad and Shirley Rumierk as Renata offer genuine performances, navigating their characters’ many issues in English and occasional Spanish. They are most comfortable in sections of conflict, like when Renata calls Caridad a jibara, a hillbilly, or when Renata doesn’t want to hear bad things about their dying father but Caridad has to say them anyway.
At other times, the actors feel under-rehearsed. Guevara has to perform the very difficult task of actually cooking as she acts; her unconvincing knife work made me worry she was in danger of cutting herself. And the more nuanced beats of the play, like Caridad’s contempt for Renata’s culinary inexperience, are not fully realized. Moments of connection between the two sisters are sparse until the play’s last section, making their relationship feel two-dimensional.
Director Rebecca Martinez has the actors speed through their lines—but the lack of emotional complexity makes it unclear why we are spending so much time watching these events unfold, and the second half drags in places.
In the end, it all comes back to the stew. The play’s most satisfying moments center around cooking. Caridad teaches Renata how to properly peel an unripe plantain (something this home cook was very excited to learn). They take turns stirring the pot, a kind of dance between the sisters that brings them closer as the story progresses. And Renata does seem to feel more comfortable in the kitchen by the play’s end, more connected to this dish, to her history.
Incidentally, WP Theater is just a block away from where recently closed Upper Westside culinary institution La Caridad stood for over fifty years. The play took me back to my youth when I would often duck into the Cuban-Chinese restaurant for cheap, delicious (Cuban) or mediocre (Chinese) food. Is it a coincidence that playwright Cato has named one of her two characters Caridad? Either way, Sancocho made me long for good Caribbean food.