The shimmering swimming pool that runs the almost-entire width of the stage of Jeremy O. Harris’ excellent, many-layered play, “Daddy,” immediately brought to this critic’s mind David Hockney’s ‘Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures).’
The stunning vessel of water is contained in a deep blue-color tiled pool, and is the physical and psychological heart of Matt Saunders’ stunningly designed set. It absorbs and reflects. Under Danya Taymor’s commanding and playful direction, the pool is also an apposite echo of O. Harris’ writing: a site of play, laughter, sex, threat, sometimes surreal song, shock, and baptism.
Its ripples reflect in beautifully lit (by Isabella Byrd) waves on the walls, just as the play’s themes reflect off each other both sharply and in more indistinct ways.
Away from all the esoteric stuff, if you sit in the front row, expect to get splashed (the theatre supplies towels).
Just like that Hockney painting, in “Daddy,” which opens tonight as a co-production of The New Group and Vineyard Theatre (running to March 31), we are in ritzy LA, and the sleek, art-packed Bel Air home of collector Andre (Alan Cumming). As the play opens—just as an older man observes a younger one swimming in the painting—we are beside and then in the pool where the white Andre, off his face on drugs, is attempting to seduce and worship Franklin (Ronald Peet).
Franklin is beautiful, muscular, and is wearing a black Speedo; Andre, also in lithe, excellent shape, is in white, ass-revealing underwear with a little more front upholstery than a conventional jockstrap. Later, Cumming will change into a flattering red Speedo.
The play is subtitled “a melodrama,” and, from the sweeping dramatic orchestrations that end and begin scenes to the struggle between Andre and Zora (Charlayne Woodard), Franklin’s mother, the text resides in its own melodramatic register. The word even informs the last tableau we see of the trio, Andre and Zora in warring soap opera stance for the scarred heart and soul of Franklin. But also note the title comes with quotation marks; a delirious exclamation, parodic and serious together.
The title of the play is a word of the moment; a word that originally was a gay term of sexual attraction—meaning a hot older guy that was sexually attractive to younger men—has migrated to general pop-cultural usage on SNL.
The play also opens as a darker news story of alleged white-on-black gay sexual exploitation and death unfolds in Los Angeles, involving Democratic donor Ed Buck and two black men—Timothy Dean and Gemmel Moore—who died in his West Hollywood home.
This play has both serious and witty intent. It takes ‘daddy,’ the familiar jocular term of attraction and lust, and puts it through a spin-cycle of analysis that folds desire into a bigger dramatic tableau of race, authority, power, success, and surreal flights of narrative fancy such as the recurring musical motif of George Michael’s ‘Father Figure,’ which eventually blooms into a full-on song, dance and water-set sequence.
If you saw O. Harris’ Slave Play, you will know how densely he packs his plays with humor and ideas, with searing emotion and loose, fast humor. Here, we are asked to consider what ‘daddy’ may mean when said between a young black man to an older richer white one, especially when that older one, admiring the younger man’s legs, calls him “Naomi,” as in Campbell, which never not sounds objectifying and racist.
What does “daddy” mean when that same young man continues to suffer spasms of shock when thinking about his own absent biological father? Do Andre and Franklin want to see each other as people, or will sexual turn-on archetypes do? Who is getting what out of this?
Both Peet and Cumming—here doing the bravest, most selfless accent switch of Scottish to English—sketch the shallows and depths of Franklin and Andre’s intimacy, the game-playing and sexual name-calling giving way to deeper and more complicated feelings.
Peet skillfully shows that Franklin isn’t without power; as the play goes on his success as an artist means his sexual-play subservience is at stark variant to his professional standing. He wants to talk about ideas, thoughts, and artistic ambition; Andre wants to look at him, own him, keep him. But Franklin won’t be so passively displayed. There are abstract ideas in “Daddy” and very real, raw experiences.
All Zora sees, when she visits, is a relationship of an older, abusive white man, whom she dismissively calls Methuselah, objectifying, using and psychologically poisoning and weakening her son. Hari Nef plays Alessia, a gallerist and the most jarringly obvious character in the whole play, who thinks the black dolls Franklin makes—Zora calls them “coon babies,” and thinks Franklin should too—are perfectly configured cultural artifacts of every cultural hot-button issue she could wish for for a new, fame- and money-attracting artistic success.
Zora’s presence means Andre feels suddenly displaced in his own home; a couple of very funny comic moments see Cumming head off to the kitchen and bedroom to attend to something for Zora, only to realize, as we do at the same moment, he is so rich and impractical that he doesn’t know where anything is kept.
Around Andre’s pool, we also find the blue Speedo’d Max (Tommy Dorfman) and Bellamy (Kahyun Kim), two archetypally vapid LA friends talking parties, sex, money, and expensive things like sunglasses. But they share an unease, like Zora, no matter how much they love the champagne and sun-loungers, about what is happening in this house, about who is in control, about what seems like a strange relationship getting stranger.
Carrie Compere, Denise Manning, and Onyie Nwachukwu are a chorus, decked in the church choral vestments of Franklin’s Southern Baptist upbringing, singing, sitting sternly by the pool and observing, and then helping Franklin silently stitch those dolls.
The dolls eventually become mega-sized puppets (designed by Tschabalala Self); Franklin makes three, one of him, one of Andre and one of Zora. He sets them up in a confusing parade of scenes of sexual and familial intimacy and love. Who does he want? What does he need? A father figure, whether that person is biological and absent and an omnipresent scar? A mother, even if she is as icy and suffocating as Zora? Or a sexual fantasy father figure?
Or just maybe Andre can be something else, a marriage of daddies if you like (of both desire and caring kinds; play-acting sex blurred with genuine commitment), if they both trust one another enough to go deeper, rather than swim in more familiar sexual shallows.
Just as in Slave Play, the ideas fire like vivid fireworks throughout this play; the erasure and resistance of black identities alongside the absurd prices and ass-blowing vanities of the art world; a mother’s possessiveness and prejudice next to style victim chatter over Mimosas; hot sex alongside furious, unhealed hurt.
Visually, physically, and narratively, there is nothing as involving and thought-provoking on the New York stage right now as “Daddy”—in all its pain and all its pleasure.
It’s an odd quirk of timing that a far more conventional, and offensively lacking LGBT-themed play should open the same night as “Daddy.”
In Manhattan Theatre Club’s 90-minute, intermissionless The Cake, written by Bekha Brunstetter and directed by Lynne Meadow, there are more echoing news headlines in the play’s story of a cakeshop owner in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, who refuses to make a wedding cake for a lesbian couple.
That cakeshop owner, Della, is played with a sunny folksiness by Debra Jo Rupp. Rupp’s neatly pitched sly small-town warmth is perfect when regaling us about the right frosting and fairycakes, but it turns out to be a flimsy cover for her bigotry and her unhappiness in her marriage to equally bigoted husband Tim (Dan Daily).
The play, which opened tonight at New York City Center (to March 31), also packs in Della’s determination to compete in The Great American Bake-Off (Daily also voices its cheesy announcer), and the dramatic convenience that the wedding cake she is refusing to bake is for Jen (Genevieve Angelson), a young woman she has known she was a child and her black partner Macy (Marinda Anderson), who, like us, can’t understand the both sides-ism everyone around her, including her bride-to-be is dancing around.
It’s odd to hear an audience laugh so heartily at laugh lines, which essentially voice Della’s prejudice. It is odd that the play seems content to say: well, Della has her beliefs, and we should respect that, when really, like Macy, you think: this is just prejudice, discrimination. It’s wrong.
Currently—and this goes completely unmentioned in a play so happy to steal its basic storyline from the news—the right to refuse goods and services to LGBT people is a very current modus operandi of states and politicians wishing to chip away at the edifice of marriage equality using the arguments of religious ‘liberty’ and ‘freedom.’
Instead, to offset Della’s bigotry, and to make the audience fall in love with Rupp, the best performer on stage, we are presented with her sob-story of a sexless marriage to a man who doesn’t listen to her, and who tells her what to do. Or so we’re told. Daily plays Tim as a bit of an oaf but one with a heart. The day I saw it Katherine Helmond had died, and Rupp’s scatty, breathy comedic timing, for me, is an echo of Helmond’s at her best as Jessica Tate in Soap.
The audience is encouraged to feel sorry for Della (after the story of the wedding cake refusal goes public), and sure enough there were sighs and awws as Rupp and Daily edged their characters towards understanding.
Nobody’s character makes sense: Jen is just a whining drip, Macy a series of didactic political pamphlets, which the play chooses to mock. Jen and Macy don’t seem like a couple, and really, if they’re this close to marriage, we neither feel the love, or understand why this political argument around the cake becomes so high-stakes and potentially imperiling so quickly.
The bigoted straight couple get more attention, more frosting if you like, than those troublesome lesbians with their request for a cake.
Oh, did I mention Macy has a gluten intolerance? Yes, the most political, astute, eloquent, morally right character on stage is a Debbie Downer. She’s anti-cake. She’s no fun. She is every humorless, assertive lesbian stereotype you’ve ever seen, amassed in one lecturing, hectoring body. Her character also has the best speeches around race, identity, and cultural assertion; too bad the audience is geared to respond to Rupp's folksy prejudice.
So, you can surely guess how her journey at the end of this play ends. Yes, with a fork, back at Della’s cake shop. Macy is powerless to resist, of course, this being a land of both-sides are right. Della has relented a little towards Jen and Macy, but not really changed at all. Macy looks in sugar heaven.
At a time when LGBT rights are under serious, extremely unfunny peril, when the kind of incident The Cake illustrates is a very real act of unfunny prejudice, we are being encouraged to think an act of bigotry can be wrong and also benign and well-intentioned, and played for laughs?
Such acts are never benign, rarely funny, and the people who practice them are practicing discrimination, whatever hokey, we're-the-real-victims BS they say and which The Cake recycles to make us feel sorry for Della. The Cake is a weird piece of can’t-we-all-just-get-along gaslighting. The cakes on John Lee Beatty's colorfully designed stage all look delicious, but they left this critic feeling sick.