“Spanking and the Gang”
Click on the following link to David Hockney’s 1971 painting “Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures)” and imagine what’s on the side from which you're observing. That’s apparently what Matt Saunders did when creating his distinctive set for Jeremy O. Harris’s ambitious but overlong, overstuffed “Daddy”: A Melodrama, a co-production of the New Group and the Vineyard Theater.
|Ronald Peet. Photo: Matt Saunders.|
The home belongs to a wealthy, white, middle-aged, physically fit, homosexual art collector named Andre, well cast with uber-charming Scottish star Alan Cumming (using a British accent), whose latest acquisition is a talented, young, black artist named Franklin (Ronald Peet). He’s not only supporting the struggling artist—including gifts, clothes, and drugs—but has taken him as a live-in lover. Andre, we’ll discover, has certain traits that remind Franklin of his long-absent father. These have so strong an unconscious effect that Franklin begins calling Andre “Daddy,” which, of course, also alludes to their sugar daddy arrangement.
It’s an arrangement that doesn’t sit well with Franklin’s visiting mother, Zora (Charlayne Woodard, bringing a tough role to life), a formidable, Bible-spouting Baptist, who decries the godlessness in Franklin’s new life style. She also sees the similarity of Andre (whom she calls Methuselah) to Franklin’s father; her dismissal of that man as an “ugly-ass nigga” apparently had a profound effect on their overhearing boy. This precipitates the main conflict, and is probably the reason for Harris’s calling the play a “melodrama,” as she engages with Andre in, I’m afraid, a rather unmelodramatic contest for Franklin’s heart and soul.
|Ronald Peet, Charlayne Woodard. Photo: Matt Saunders.|
Harris, a rising young playwright whose controversial Slave Play raised eyebrows earlier in the season at the New York Theatre Workshop, touches again on racial issues (especially in a speech by Zora on why black fathers abandon their kids), but it mostly ignores the implications of the Andre and Franklin affair.
Harris seems more interested in other themes, such as interrogating, with a soupcon of satire, the commercial art scene, via discussions about the patronage, taste, and the purpose of art. What pertinent points there are, though, get buried in fatuous, name-dropping blather. Then, of course, there are the psycho-sexual issues plaguing Franklin, who regresses to a thumb-sucking child, acting out his demons by manipulating large, puppet-like, soft-sculptures of himself, Andre, and Zora.
|Kayhun Kim, Tommy Dorfman. Photo: Matt Saunders.|
Adding local color, sometimes comic, are Franklin’s insipid, nonblack, well-acted friends, Bellamy (Kahyun Kim) and Max (Tommy Dorfman), excited by his newfound luxuries (those Gucci shades!) yet borderline troubled by its implications. They chatter in fluent Valley Girl, scattering “likes” as if they were conversational dandruff. Similarly vapid is Alessia (Hari Nef, over-the-top), the easily excitable gallery owner showing Franklin’s art.
|Alan Cumming, Kayhun Kim, Tommy Dorfman. Photo: Matt Saunders.|
Finally, there’s a choir of black gospel singers (Carrie Compere, Denise Manning, and Onyie Nwachukwu) who traipse through the action, using their beautiful harmonies for background purposes or to support Zora’s singing, and otherwise serving as visible or invisible witnesses, as need be, to the proceedings. (Lee Kinney did the original score.)
|Kayhun Kim, Charlayne Woodard, Alan Cumming, Tommy Dorfman. Photo: Matt Saunders.|
“Daddy,” vividly staged by Danya Taymor, plays out in three acts lasting nearly two hours and 50 minutes, many of those minutes unnecessary and requiring patience to sit them out. The play’s cerebral ambiguities, including the various symbolic functions all that water and the references to it are meant to represent, help make its vague reflections on queerness, blackness, art, and parental love seem more significant than they are.
|Alan Cumming, Onyie Nwachukwu, Denise Manning, Ronald Peet, Charlayne Woodard. Photo: Matt Saunders.|
Plenty meets the eye and ear but much of it seems a coverup for playwriting blandness. Thus we have language veering from naturalistic to hip-speak to academic to poetic; full frontal male nudity (Peet and Cumming), male-male canoodling, and a barrage of bare-assed spanking; ominous moods created by Isabella Byrd’s lighting and Lee Kinney’s sound design (with puzzling occurrences of an iPhone ringtone); and super-chic attire by Montana Levi Blanco (you won’t forget Bellamy’s sunhat, wide enough for a flying nun).
There also are bizarre surrealistic infusions, like the songs performed in the pool by fully dressed actors holding hand-held mics, one a Gospel number featuring Zora and the choir, the other George Michaels’s “Father Figure,” featuring Andre and the choir.
Jeremy O. Harris will continue writing difficult, provocative plays and both critics and audiences will continue to debate their merits. Hopefully, they’ll provide deeper pools to jump into than “Daddy.”
Pershing Square Signature Center/Linney Courtyard Theatre
480 W. 42nd St., NYC
Through March 31