REIVEW: “The Cake”
As a 17-year old closeted gay teen, I couldn’t understand why the lovely librarian at my Catholic School, a Democrat living on Long Island, wouldn’t support same-sex marriage. I have been thinking of her, and the perplexing phenomenon of friendly people holding bigoted points of view, since seeing “The Cake”, the New York premiere of a new play by Bekah Brunstetter (“This Is Us”) at Manhattan Theatre Club.
Della (Debra Jo Rupp, “That 70s Show”) is a bubbly, big-haired, and chatty North Carolina baker whose outrageously decorated and delicious cakes make her little shop a destination, and have landed her a coveted spot on the next season of “The Great American Baking Show”.
An agreeable rule-follower, she’s excited to bake the wedding cake for Jen (Genevieve Angelson), the daughter of her late-best friend who visits from Brooklyn to share news of the nuptials, until she learns that Jen is now a lesbian, and is engaged to an African American woman named Macy (Marinda Anderson)—the same interloping journalist who cases the store at the play’s beginning and has no taste for cake, or Della and her conservative community for that matter.
The play, given a first class production directed with great wit and humanity by MTC’s Artistic Director Lynne Meadow, follows Della as she balances fidelity to her conservative religious and political beliefs with her love for Jen and her late-mother, all while rediscovering her own sparkless and disappointingly childless marriage to the dowdy though domineering plumber, Tim (Dan Daily).
Ms. Rupp gives a fantastic, full dimensional performance as a well-intentioned woman who can’t keep up with the pace of social change around her. It is a rare, sympathetic portrait of a conservative character on a New York stage—a near exclusively “liberal” space—who is not a simple villain but rather a lovable person who holds discriminatory views molded by her upbringing and surroundings, and fitfully attempts to reconcile them in good faith.
Progress cannot be made without people changing or, as some politicians like to say, “evolving” on the hot button social issues of the day. The frustrating problem with “The Cake”, though, is that Della doesn’t change much at all, or at least not nearly enough (spoiler: after wavering, she bakes the cake, but doesn’t attend the wedding or reception). And in the process, the queerness of the characters around her is sublimated in favor of a story about a white, straight, conservative woman reaffirming her own marriage even as she refuses to accept the same sex marriage of a person she ostensibly loves. As a gay audience member, I felt oddly othered by this play—a comedy—which, I suppose, isn’t aimed at me.
Despite being drawn from the headlines, “The Cake” contains a dated treatment of its gay characters and their milieu. Jen and Macy do not credibly read as a couple in love, much less one on verge of marriage. Ms. Brunstetter’s flat and argumentative writing of these lesbians, though no doubt well-intentioned, is unconvincing and inauthentic.
Ultimately, the gay wedding cake controversy was and is about the equal dignity and respect society affords (or doesn’t) to a persecuted minority—a sadly relevant topic worthy of dramatization. The incongruity of asking an audience to sympathize with Della and her journey without offering a realistic or authentic “other side” hampers the effort, and relies on a framework that itself presents a flawed choice and a missed opportunity to challenge the audience more seriously.
Change takes time, is hard work, and requires both patience and open hearts on all sides. Della is not only wrong, though, but manipulatively so, no matter how much she struggles. In the end, Jen rolls over and it is Macy who is called upon to cede to Della’s charm (and pink lemonade cake), instead of the other way around, which left a bad taste in my mouth.
John Lee Beatty’s impeccable set design and Ms. Rupp’s masterful portrait and comedic timing are icing, but the cake underneath could use a better recipe.
Bottom Line: Drawing from the headlines, in Bekah Brunstetter’s “The Cake” Debra Jo Rupp gives a fantastic, full dimensional performance as a lovable, conservative baker who struggles with the decision to bake a wedding cake for her surrogate daughter’s same sex wedding. Despite a great performance and a gorgeous production, the play contains a dated treatment of its gay characters and their milieu, presenting an incongruous and ultimately flawed portrait of the relevant issues at hand.
Manhattan Theatre Club
City Center Stage I
131 West 55th Street
New York, NY 10019
Running Time: 90 minutes (no intermission)
Opening Night: March 5, 2019
Final Performance: March 31, 2019