By Bekah Brunstetter; Directed by Lynne Meadow
Produced by Manhattan Theatre Club
Off Broadway, Play
Runs through 3.31.19
New York City Center Stage I, 131 West 55th Street
by Lexi Orphanos on 3.5.19
Debra Jo Rupp in The Cake. Photo by Joan Marcus.
BOTTOM LINE: The Cake captures the tensions dividing our modern moment, all while literally sugar coating the audience with pink lemonade frosting and Debra Jo Rupp's big blonde hair.
The Cake opens on Della (Debra Jo Rupp, That ‘70s Show), a sweet woman from North Carolina who owns her very own bakery and is also about to be a contestant on The Great American Baking Show, a show she quite literally fantasizes about. Under a spotlight, Della describes in mouthwatering detail exactly how to make a perfect cake. She emphasizes one of her most important rules: don’t take any shortcuts. In ignorant bliss, Della preaches how important it is not to skimp, and to use real, whole-fat dairy, no “tofu butter” or “milk made outta nuts!” Emphasizing her point with a flailing icing knife, she proclaims “you must follow the directions.” She is a round-faced blonde woman (with a penchant for zhuzhing her hair in the mirror) who seems to be living on Main Street USA, and even better, she gets to spend her days whipping up buttercream and thinking potatoes are a healthy vegetable option. In this opening of clever character work and cringe-worthy comments, we come to realize that Della really practices what she preaches, seeming to be resistant and confused by the changing country around her. In other words, Brunstetter’s chief character is quick to prove herself the enemy of the modern New York liberal.
Suddenly, Della is faced with this conflict head-on as a lesbian couple, Macy (Marinda Anderson) and Jen (Genevieve Angelson), roll into her little town of Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Macy, a former debate champion, arrives to the bakery first and interrogates Della with quick-fire questions on a litany of political hot topics. As far as the audience is concerned, Macy and Della are polar opposites in modern America. However, their tension gets tested when Jen is revealed to be Macy’s fiancee, coming to town with a request for their very own wedding cake from Della. A close friend to Jen’s late mother, Della feels a familial attachment to Jen; they’re practically family. The news of Jen being both gay and engaged to Della’s modern American nightmare drive tensions to a head as The Cake‘s layers are revealed (sexy buttercream included— literally).
This play is mainly inspired by the 2015 case in which Portland bakery owner Melissa Klein turned away lesbian couple Rachel Cryer and Laurel Bowman when they asked her to make their wedding cake, citing her own religious beliefs as reason enough. However, Oregon law prohibits discrimination of LGBTQ people in jobs, or in establishments (like a bakery) that serve the public. By reopening this news story, Brunstetter and Meadow craft a story about strife and failure to adapt to this ever-changing, “woke” new world.
Debra Jo Rupp plays a warm anti-hero. While her growth and confusion drive the piece, it’s often tough to agree with her, even though she's the protagonist, and the central focus of the 90-minute play. It’s hard to even sympathize with Della; you want her to have known better all along. Within this structure, Jen and Macy are the antagonists, presenting Della with moral upsets, yet they're also the ones many in a contemporary New York audience will likely side with. In this light, The Cake feels a bit like it's preaching to the choir, yet doing so in opposition to the main character. While simple in essence, Brunstetter’s writing presents an enigma of a woman who plainly exists in everyone’s daily lives, in our very country.
(The Cake plays at New York City Center, 131 West 55th Street, through March 31, 2019. Running time is 1 hour 30 minutes with no intermission. Performances are Tuesdays at 7; Wednesdays at 2 and 7; Thursdays and Fridays at 8; Saturdays at 2 and 8; and Sundays at 2. There is also a performance Sunday 3/10 at 7. No matinees on Wed 3/6 and 3/13; evening perf on Wed 3/20 is at 8. Tickets are $89 and are available at nycitycenter.org or by calling 212-581-1212. $30 tickets are available to those under 35 as part of MTC's "30 Under 35" Program - sign up here. For more information visit manhattantheatreclub.com.)
The Cake is by Bekah Brunstetter. Directed by Lynne Meadow. Scenic Design by John Lee Beatty. Costume Design by Tom Broecker. Lighting Design by Philip S. Rosenberg. Original Music and Sound Design by John Gromada. Hair, Wig and Make-up Design by Tommy Kurzman. Dialect Coach is Deborah Hecht. Production Stage Manager is Steven Ravet. Stage Manager is Denise Cardarelli.
The cast is Marinda Anderson, Genevieve Angelson, Dan Daily, and Debra Jo Rupp.