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The Cake

Theatre Review by Marc Miller - March 5, 2019

Debra Jo Rupp, Genevieve Angelson, and Marinda Anderson
Photo by Joan Marcus

It's called The Cake, and the press materials suggest that Bekah Brunstetter's serious comedy is going to be about, well, a cake. That it turns out to be about guilt, shame, inability to change, and, most pointedly, the differences between the two current Americas testifies to the cunning of this inventive, surprising writer. The Cake is a hoot, and also a full, satisfying meal that clings to the ribs well after its hour and a half.

Brunstetter simply takes a notable recent Supreme Court case — Masterpiece Cakeshop vs. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, where a bakery balked at creating a wedding cake for a same-sex couple — and plunks it down in her hometown, Winston-Salem, N.C., a sure-of-itself Bible Belt bastion, playing with the particulars to suit her storytelling. (The Supremes, while finding in favor of the bakery, issued a narrow ruling that leaves the issue far from settled.) Here, Della (Debra Jo Rupp) owns a cake shop that is exclusively her domain, and in which is wrapped pretty much her entire identity. She's a loving master of devil's-food and pink-lemonade desserts, and she's excited over an imminent appearance as a contestant on TV's leading baking-competition show. Rupp, evoking Dody Goodman mixed with Betty White, has a delightful opening monologue while applying the icing to one of her sumptuous creations, interrupted by Macy (Marinda Anderson), an inquisitive visitor from up North. Their strained small talk instantly reveals that they're living in alternate worlds, and their discomfort is worsened by the appearance of Jen (Genevieve Angelson). She's the daughter of Della's late best friend . . . and she's Macy's fiancĂ©e.

How deftly Rupp portrays Della's internal conflicts. Jen, pretty and feminine and virtually her goddaughter, has always longed for a perfect picture-book wedding — she was "a little girl who once marched Barbie up a carpet aisle," according to one of Brunstetter's stage directions, which, via Lynne Meadow's sympathetic direction, are happily apparent in the performances (but more fun to read). And Della has long dreamed of baking her a wedding cake to end all wedding cakes. But this, this anti-Scripture, from-up-North same-sex thing . . .

Brunstetter gives everybody a say, through lively dialogue and character-revealing monologues. Jen's is about how she dated guys and looked on sex as a necessary but unpleasant rite of passage, until Macy happened, and "it just felt right." (We never find out what Jen does for a living; I'd like to know.) Macy has a painful exchange with Jen about the extra care and effort she had to expend to excel as one of the few African-American girls in a suburban private school, and how when her dad found out about her sexuality, he threw a Bible at her. In Winston-Salem, she's a stranger in a strange land, and she'd rather get married anywhere else. But Jen's heart is set on a hometown wedding, where maybe she can somehow unite the disparate family members who aren't happy about what they regard as a lifestyle choice. Della gets several solos, including baking-competition fantasy sequences that reveal where her mind is at, and it's not always on the baking. Tim (Dan Daily), her good-ol'-boy husband, is the least developed character, but even he gets a choice moment about discovering he was unable to father a child, and what that did to his sex drive. No wonder he and Della are having problems.

So are Jen and Macy, especially after the latter posts an article about Della's shop and the cultural alienation she felt down South. Clearly, though, they love each other, and as that becomes obvious to Della, she has to rethink her moral sense, her religion, and who she'll bake a cake for. Does she reform entirely? Spoiler alert, but no, and that's indicative of how convincingly Brunstetter has framed the debate, and how she won't settle for cheap happy endings. Della and Tim, meantime, make varied clumsy attempts to reignite their marriage, while Jen and Macy try to reconcile their pasts with their more difficult presents. Quite a lot happens, really, but it's hard to verbalize; it's one of those plays where nearly every line has a subtext. Beneath the straightforward narrative, and along with Brunstetter's many comic lines and characters changing the subject when the subject becomes too uncomfortable, is a smart exploration of why, even in a land where so many of us watch the same TV shows and post on the same blogs and social media, we're so radically disunited.

John Lee Beatty's set — with two small revolves, elaborate for Manhattan Theatre Club Stage 1 — reeks of Winston-Salem middle-class gentility, and Tom Broecker's costumes point up the clash of Brooklyn-stylish and Southern-outlet mall. Meadow's pacing is brisk, and while we're not really in doubt as to whose side Brunstetter is on, she's careful to make Della and Tim human and sympathetic, while endowing Jen and Macy with character flaws that blur the line between good guy and bad guy. I've gone on for long enough, so here's the money quote: The Cake is delicious.

The Cake
Through March 31
Manhattan Theatre Club @ New York City Center Stage 1, 131 West 55th Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenues
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