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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
Fortunately Debra Jo Rupp who baked the titular prop during its regional runs (including one we reviewed at Barrington Stage) is again on board to once again delight in MTC's artistic head Lynne Meadow's beautifully staged and more relevant as ever production.
Rupp's Della (Debra Jo Rupp), the peppy proprietor of a small North Carolina town bakery knows how to create gorgeous, irresistibly tasty cakes for any special occasion. Yet, she attributes what's won her a chance to be a contestant on TV's popular Great American Baking Show to her habit of always following directions — just as she's led her life according to the directions for being a good Christian as spelled out by her ultra traditional church.
Ms. Brunstetter, who herself hails from North Carolina and is a successful TV producer and script writer has deftly packed more than sugar and flour and cream into that titular prop. The result is an entertaining and compassionate exploration of four people on opposing side of the what to believe in spectrum.
Rupp's Della is without a doubt the play's star and central character. However, Jen, the bride (Genevieve Angelson), Macy (Marinda Anderson), the groom-ina, and Tim (Dan Daily), Della's plumber husband, are also fully and engagingly developed, and convincingly portrayed by this New York cast. Meadow's savvy decision to have Dan Daily also play the often heard but never seen Baking Show host adds amusingly surreal insight into Della' and Tim's marriage— especially since the boom-voiced Daily is terrific in both roles.
The Colorado baker and the gay men whose order he turned down because of religious objections to same sex marriage didn't know each other made for an important case history. But it took a more personal approach to turn it into a compelling drama. The playwright did this by having her baker's moral dilemma built around a connection with one of the same sex lovers go back many years. Jen, the bride to be, is the daughter of Della's best friend who died three years ago so their relationship is extremely meaningful and personal.
The Colorado case is thus a springboard for a dramatically satisfying, intensely emotional 90-minute play. Its eight scenes smoothly connect not just one, but three plot threads. And while there's nothing funny about that case or any of the current ultra-conservative religious views influencing America's political landscape, The Cake manages to touch our hearts even as it tickles our funny bones.
The action begins on a high note with Della thrilled about her upcoming six-week stint on the TV reality show. It's her longest time ever away from Tim and on her own. Though Tim, in keeping with this very traditional marriage, would normally be against such a long separation, both his plumbing business and her bake shop could surely use that $20,000 prize.
As for Jen, Tim too loves her and is at first happy to hear that she's returned to plan a wedding in her home town. That is, until he hears that the groom is a girl.
Being even more firmly entrenched in the belief that same sex partnerships are sinful, he assumes that Della will stick with her telling Jen she can't make the cake (she says she's too busy but everyone knows that's not why). It's upon seeing Della's discomfort about this situation, that he orders her to not even think about baking that cake — and that the seeds of a marital sub-plot begin to take root.
The ripple effect of the cake situation on Della's marriage also kicks up problems between Jen and Macy stemming from their very different backgrounds and still unresolved identity issues: They met while Jen was an assistant on one of the social media publications for which Macy writes. But Jen's childhood in a conservative Southern town still romanticizes a wedding there yet makes her uncomfortable being part of African-American Macy's very liberal Brooklyn. On the other hand, Macy's anti conventional marriage celebrations, religion, anti-sugar stance has its own roots in her growing up as an outlier — feelings that erupt into acerbic interchanges with Della and prompt her to write an article with all-around hurtful repercussions.
Adding another layer to the cake by making Macy an African-American does make for thematic overkill. However, the way playwright Brunstetter has structured her play to take us from Jen and Macy's arrival in Della's bake shop through the six months leading up to their planned wedding is a model for concise but multi-faceted story telling. It's all reinforced by smart dialogue and the top drawer crafts team which includes scenery wizard John Lee Beatty. His swing-around three panel scenic backdrop takes us back and forth between the bakery, various bedroom scenes and the fantasy scenes without missing a beat.
Della isn't as indisputably endearing a protagonist as the sex therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer who last brought Debra Jo Rupp to Off-Broadway with Becoming Dr. Ruth (review). But if anyone can make a character most New York theatergoers would tag as a bigot delightful company, it's Bekah Brunstetter her creator and Debra Jo Rupp her dynamite interpreter.
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The Cake by Bekah Brunstetter
Directed by Lynne Meadow
Cast: Debora Jo Rupp (Della, Marinda Anderson (Macy), Genevieve Angelson (Jen), and Dan Daily (Tim/Voice of George)
John Lee Beatty: Scenic design
Tom Broecker: Costume design
Philip S. Rosenberg: Lighting design
John Gromada: Sound design and original music
Tommy Kurzman: Hair, wig & make-up design
Dialect Coach: Deborah Hecht
Stage Manager:Stephen Ravet
Running Time: 90 minutes, no intermission
MTC Stage I
From 2/12/19; opening 3/05/19; closing 3/30/19
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 2/28 press preview
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