THE CAKE – Manhattan Theatre Club
THE CAKE is like a centrist candidate for President: It accommodates everybody’s point of view so nobody gets offended. Tidily composed by Bekah Brunstetter and straightforwardly directed by Lynne Meadow, THE CAKE’s premise is ripped from today’s headlines. North Carolina born-and-bred, middle-age baker Della, who believes in the Lord, gets all conflicted about baking a wedding cake for her deceased best friend’s daughter Jen, visiting from hipster Brooklyn, when she discovers the little girl she’d known since birth is a lesbian getting married to woman. Jen’s conflicted too because she feels a loyal tug to her mother’s memory (what would she say if she knew I turned out gay?) and her Christian, Southern roots. These middle-of-the-roaders get flanked right and left by Della’s husband, blue-collar, Trump voting husband Tim, and Jen’s Black fiancé, Macy, a take-no-prisoners activist who grew up in an intellectual, leftist household in Philadelphia.
Brunstetter peppers the script with jokes about old-fashioned butter and sugar baking: Della quips “gluten free tastes like the back of my mouth after a bad cry.” The North Carolina-born Brunstetter cleverly breaks up the linear narrative and heightens Della’s moral dilemma with fantasy sequences of her performance-baking for an off-stage, wrath-of-God voiced emcee of a The Great American Baking Show on cable on which she’s scheduled to compete. Brunstetter moves Della along - “my brain and heart are at war” - to a crisis of values, where she questions her big, life choices, in the best scene in the play, in confrontation with husband Tim - “You forget that I went to college but I did.” (Later in the play, though, Brunstetter misfires badly with Tim’s ridiculous cringe-worthy try to make nice in the bedroom.)
As Della, Debra Jo Rupp, who originated the role in Los Angeles and played it to audience acclaim at Barrington Stage in the Berkshires last summer, is unilaterally in control. All the elements of her performance - movement, timing and accent - are set like concrete. Brunstetter fleshes out the other characters well enough, so the actors are working with something besides their cultural type. Still, I wondered what it was like for the cast to keep up with Rupp.
The ending, like any successful politician, sort of gets it both ways. THE CAKE isn’t bold or provocative: It’s considered and gentle in confronting political and cultural divisions. While this pleasant olive branch approach lacks dramatic sting, at least it’s in blessed relief to likes of the musical THE PROM where everybody who doesn’t hate Trump is depicted as a stupid slob. THE CAKE believes that sugar makes moral medicine go down. And in carefully measured spoonfuls at that.