Thursday, March 28, 2019

195 (2018-2019): Review: THE CAKE (seen March 27, 2019)

“Very Fine People”

Bekah Brunstetter’s light and fluffy The Cake, which closes this weekend, gets what nutritional value it has from a few sweetly topical ingredients. It’s a well-intentioned slice of gay-themed dramatic pastry obviously inspired by the notorious case of the Colorado baker (and others) who refused to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding because of his religious beliefs. 
Debra Jo Rupp. Photo: Joan Marcus.
As crisply directed by Lynne Meadow, The Cake—originally produced by the Echo Theatre Company, Los Angeles, and now at the Manhattan Theatre Club—is more a good-natured, mildly didactic, 90-minute, sit-com treatment of a serious situation than a dramatic take on the historic case that went to the Supreme Court, where the baker’s position was upheld.

It stars the still-adorable Debra Jo Rupp (TV’s That ‘70s Show, Friends) as a chatty, middle-aged, Winston-Salem, NC, baker, Della, who’s preparing to be a contestant on a reality TV show called “The Great American Baking Show.” Thrilled by the opportunity, and by the show’s handsome host, with his king-like voice, she frequently primps her bouffant blondness as she rehearses how she’ll behave on TV, talking to the host while preparing her concoctions.
Debora Jo Rupp, Genevieve Angelson, Marinda Anderson. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Arriving one day at Della’s Sweets, her boutique-y cake shop, is a young, African-American woman, Macy (Marinda Anderson), from New York, who’s interviewing Della for an article. Entering a little later is Macy’s girlfriend, Jen (Genevieve Angelson), a white woman who now lives in Brooklyn but grew up locally. Jen’s so close to Della, her late mother’s best friend, the women consider each other family. 

Jen and Macy are in town to get married and they want Della to make their wedding cake. Della, thrilled to be tasked with creating a cake for what she initially thinks are bride and groom nuptials, does her best to disguise her shock when she realizes it’s a bride and bride affair.

Bound by what she later claims are her religious beliefs, she doesn’t refuse on those grounds but claims she’s so booked with other orders she hasn’t the time to bake their cake. Her bigotry, though, seems more the result of innocent cultural habit than of twisted ignorance. Even so, considering her relationship to Jen, and what we keep hearing about her goodness, it seems forced and inorganic.

Jen, although hurt, is so ultra-nice and forgiving that, in the interest of getting happily married in her hometown, she’s willing to move on and not further disrupt a longtime family friendship. The argumentative Macy, though, a former high school debater, gets heated; a healthy foody, she also gets worked up about eating cake and rails against gluten and sugar. (Take a guess where that is going). 
Debra Jo Rupp, Genevieve Angelson. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Also involved is Della’s redneck husband, Tim (Dan Daily, who also does the TV host’s voiceovers), a plumber whose undue influence on Della is partly responsible for her backing off from baking the cake. Mixed into the batter of these developments is the cooling (frosting?) of Tim and Della’s sexual relations, 

At the end, what comes out of the playwright’s oven (especially a squirmy bedroom scene between Tim and Della) is as inedible as her dramatic construction, like how she gets people offstage so others can be alone for one-on-one conversations. Nor does the naughty little secret Della reveals to Tim taste right. 
Marinda Anderson, Genevieve Angelson. Photo: Joan Marcus.
The concerning issue of a business owner’s right to reject requests from those with whose private lives they claim to have religious objections is muffled by Brunstetter’s focus not so much on the problem’s broader dimensions but on the circumstances of specific characters tied to one another by prior personal relationships. Some mild jokes about the different values of liberal Northerners and conservative Southerners (noted in the plethora of Bible Belt-themed billboards) provide icing, but the play’s pursuit of laughter sometimes seems more urgent than anything much deeper.

Debra Jo Rupp, Dan Daily. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Watching The Cake, in fact, was often like viewing a TV sitcom with a straight face and wondering what the people on the laugh track are finding funny. I heard many short bursts of laughter but nary a one from anyone nearby.

Master designer John Lee Beatty has created a set showing several locales, mainly two bedrooms, one at either side, that appear and vanish on turntables. These also roll into to place so the entire stage is filled with Della’s bakery, its shelves stacked with scrumptious-looking creations that lighting designer Philip S. Rosenberg now and them illuminates from within, among other charming effects.

The work of Angelson, Anderson, and Daily is satisfactory but it’s Rupp’s pleasing presence as the conflicted baker-housewife, whose growth the play charts, that provides what flavor this confection has. At one point, Della says she tried a gluten-free cake once and “it tasted like the back of my mouth after I have a good cry.” The Cake doesn’t taste like that but I doubt it would make it on “The Great American Baking Show.”

City Center Stage 1/Manhattan Theatre Club
131 W. 55th St., NYC
Through March 31