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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
Ms. Warden certainly has her work cut out here since there are plenty of other intimate scenes between the handsome young Peet and the play's star attraction, Alan Cumming as Andre, the titular Daddy. So here's a caveat: Even if you're an Alan Cumming fan, If sex scenes once limited to pornographic movies and lots of nudity bothers you, you might wait for him to show up in a play that that wouldn't fit a subtitle of melodrama— and to be more precise, pornographic melodrama.
Add to that caveat: Best stay home too if you expect your plays to make complete sense, and have fully developed characters. Though self-indulgently long (almost three hours), Cumming's Andre is a cipher. We never know how he became rich enough to live in a posh Los Angeles mansion and collect high priced modern art and gorgeous young men.
According to Harris's own admission Daddy preceded last year's production of Slave Play. It was his submission for admittance to the Yale School of Drama master's program but no one wanted to produce it until the ecstatic responses to Slave Play made anything with his by-line an instant not to be missed work.
And so the New Group and the Vineyard Theatre threw all their resources behind the heretofore unproduced play now at the New Group's home at the Pershing Square Theatre Center. If Harris fine tuned his original script, that didn't include trimming it (a half hour less would be more than welcome), fleshing out Andre's character or clarifying its ambiguous and confusing plot elements.
That said, Daddy is a visually deluxe and often entertaining production. What's more, the performances are just fine. That goes even for the ever present surreal choral trio that represents the "forgotten hear and soul" of the emotionally insecure but dedicated young artist.
The first of the play's three acts begins with Franklin and Andre high on drugs at poolside of the ritzy, ultra modern, art filled house (designed by Matt Saunders and atmospherically lit by Isabella Byrd). That's a real pool that gets quite a workout throughout the three acts. And instead of the servants you would see in this kind of home, that gospel choir is present in the background throughout.
This sexy meetup isn't a one-night stand as Andre is so smitten with Franklin that he wants to acquire him even more than another painting. And Franklin, a still emerging young artist is persuaded to stay on. And though the passionate sex is mutual, the sugar daddy-son relationship that ensues is not — Franklin's willingness to play the submissive role, rooted in the lack of a real father in his childhood.
Before the two-way situation turns into a triangle that brings on Franklin's religious mother Zora (Charlayne Woodward) to rescue him from what she considers a wrongful relationship with Andre. We meet his air-headed friends, the gay Max (Tommy Dorfman) and Bellamy (Kahyun Kim) who have taken advantage of Franklin's new digs to enjoy the pool and imbibe snacks. Both provide some of the genuinely hilarious moments. I do wish that Dorfman had not been directed to dive into that shallow pool (at the most 3 1/2 feet high) as such dives are known to risk crippling accidents.
Another character from Franklin's pre-Andre life is Alessia (Hari Neff), the agent working with him on a show of the small black doll figures he's creating for his first show. The way she tries to cover up her surprise at seeing Franklin become Andre's kept man is Harris's dialogue at its wittiest. ("It's the Medicis, the Guggenheims, the Rubells, the Getty's, that are responsible for all the art we love. So don't be ashamed").
But it's not until the second act that the play's claim to that subtitle of melodrama takes hold with the arrival of Charlayne Woodward's Zora. An always impressive performer, she gets my vote for this production's most dynamic performance. Her first encounter with Andre, comparing her background with his is one of the scripts more authentic and character defining interchanges. And, while Montana Levi Blanco has created apt costume for everyone, she's gifted Woodard with more outfits than anyone else—and Woddard deserves a special hand for managing to change into and look just right in all of them.
Cumming besides capturing the obsessive passion of the sugar daddy role, displays his musical theater roots are on display in the first act's terrific finale when his Andre croons George Michaels' "Father Figure" lyrics as he dances Franklin around the pool. While that Michaels song strongly supports the play's title, Director Danya Taymor Broadway-ish staging has infused the production with sweeping musical background music (Darius Smith and Lee Kinney).
Courtesy of doll maker Tschabalala Self, the small "weird dolls of black boys" that Franklin creates grow into huge replicas of the play's battling triangle. The symbolic significance of the bigger dolls' as well as their maker's being immersed as in a baptism goes unrealized. And so, if you've bought a ticket, park your demands for clarity and depth at the door and just view this as a colorful happening — and a chance to experience the work of a still emerging playwriting talent.
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Daddy by Jeremy o. Harris
Directed by Danya Taymor.
Carrie Compere (Gospel Choir), Alan Cumming (Andre), Tommy Dorfman (Max), Kahyun Kim (Bellamy), Denise Manning (Gospel Choir), Hari Nef (Alessia), Onyie Nwachukwu (Gospel Choir), Ronald Peet (Franklin) and Charlayne Woodard (Zora).
Scenic Design: Matt Saunders
Costume Design: Montana Levi Blanco
Lighting Design: Isabella Byrd
Sound Design, Original Music and Vocal Arrangements: Darius Smith and Lee Kinney
Hair, Wig and Makeup Design: Cookie Jordan
Intimacy and Fight Direction: Claire Warden
Movement Coordination: Darrell Moultrie
Doll Design: Tschabalala Self
Production Stage Manager: Valerie A. Peterson
Running Time: 2 hours and 50 minuts, including 2 intermissions
A Vineyard co-production with the New Group at Pershing Square Signature Center
From 2/12/19; opening 3/05/19; closing 3/31/19
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 3/09/19 performance
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