Regional Reviews: San Diego
Dedicated baker Della (Faith Prince) owns a bakery in North Carolina, and is a contestant on "The Great American Baking Show." She seems like a larger-than-life pastry connoisseur who would never wish others harm. Della, however, turns out to be a complicated person, particularly when she reunites with Jen (Aubrey Dollar), the daughter of her deceased best friend. On finding out that Jen is engaged, Della is overjoyed and delighted. However, she is alarmed to find out that Jen is getting married to a womana bright and outspoken journalist, Macy (Miriam A. Hyman). The couple want Della to bake their wedding cake, but Della comes up with the excuse that she is extremely busy during the month of Jen's wedding, and this precedes several dramatic situations in the play.
Brunstetter's script has a lot of elements that are effective and a good amount that are not and could be improved. On the plus side, she doesn't demonize the protagonist, even though Della's views on marriage can come across as very traditional and narrow-minded. Della is the most fleshed out character, and is given the biggest arc throughout the evening, while Brunstetter's development of Macy and Jen isn't always on the same level. Part of that is because one would think that the main source of tension should be between Della and Jen, as they share a lot of history. Instead, Brunstetter chose to focus on heated and awkward conversations between Della and Macy. While their discussions do include moments that are intelligent and funny, their dialogue often feels rushed and unsubtle.
The actors bring as much conviction and personality as they can to their roles, particularly Prince, who takes advantage of every grand or understated moment given to Della. Primarily known for musical theatre, Prince brings the same kind of depth and comic timing to The Cake as she is known for on Broadway. She shares hilarious stage chemistry with Wayne Duvall, who plays Della's almost passionless husband Tim. Prince and Duvall take Della and Tim's relationship seriously, and their time together is both humorous and sad. In contrast, Hyman and Dollar depict a closer connection than the one portrayed by Prince and Duvall. I wish that Dollar had more scenes with Prince, because they are very believable as close family friends.
With The Cake primarily set in Della's bakery, director Casey Stangl and the design team present a warm atmosphere in early scenes. Stangl's direction is often ironic, with plenty of uncomfortable conversations at such an attractive store. David F. Weiner's scenery and Elizabeth Harper's lighting should cause even the most full theatregoer to become hungry for dessert. Paul James Prendergast's sound design permits a set of imaginary conversations between Della and the host of "The Great American Baking Show," George (voiced by Jeffrey Howard Ingman). His original score smartly mimics the type of exaggeratedly cheery music found on several reality television series, and his other melodies fit in perfectly with the North Carolina setting.
Regardless of the cast and crew's fine work, Brunstetter presents the growing clash between the three main characters with hardly any nuance. Macy, Jen, and even Della share their various beliefs in ways that are too broad and occasionally a little bit over the top. One example is an opening monologue in which Della gives credit to her success by "following the directions." It's no surprise when she later uses that same point when discussing same-sex marriage. Too many situations like this keep The Cake from being truly compelling.
In spite of Prince's multilayered performance and some clever lines, Brunstetter's theatrical piece isn't particularly deep at this point. As same-sex marriage will always be a topical subject, an updated version of Brunstetter's tale might be able to build off the positive qualities of the current version.
La Jolla Playhouse presents The Cake, through March 3, 2018, at 2910 La Jolla Village Dr, La Jolla CA. Tickets start at $20.00 and be purchased online at www.lajollaplayhouse.org or by phone at 1-858-550-1010.