Debra Jo Rupp photos by Joan
By Ron Cohen
When a Colorado baker refused to bake a wedding cake for a same-sex couple, the
went all the way to the Supreme Court. In her play The Cake, being given
its New York premiere Off-Broadway by Manhattan Theatre Club, Bekah Brunsetter,
presumably inspired by that incident, avoids the political and legal
ramifications of such a stance. Rather she explores the personal repercussions,
along with a paean to cake-baking that rivals the obsession of the musical The
Waitress with pie-making. And in doing so, it wraps a highly charged topic
-- LGBT discrimination – into a pleasant but sometimes gooey confection.
whose credits include producing on the acclaimed dramatic TV series This Is
Us, places her story in her hometown of Winston-Salem, NC, and her affection
for the more cozy and gracious traditions of Southern living are apparent. It’s
there that Della (Debra Jo Rupp) has her bakery, where she turns out cakes that
are delectable works of art. Della herself is even sweeter than her cakes,
good-natured, funny and secure in her belief in the Bible and the rightness of
are challenged, though, by the homecoming of Jen (Genevieve Angelson), the
daughter of Della’s deceased best friend.
Marinda Anderson and Genevieve Angelson
Jen, who has
been living in New York, has returned to Winston-Salem for her wedding, a
wedding she hopes will have all the trappings of her Southern upbringing. The
big hitch is that she’s marrying a woman.
course, wants Della to bake her wedding cake, and Della, of course, despite her
total love for Jen, cannot bring herself to do it. She cannot defy the
teachings of the Gospel. Her refusal creates all kinds of chaos. Macy (Marinda
Anderson), who is Jen’s bride-to-be, is a writer, and when she posts an article
on the Internet about Della’s refusal, Della is disqualified from her eagerly
anticipated appearance on a network TV baking show.
the passion that Della perceives in Macy and Jen’s relationship reawakens
Della’s own sexual longings, longings that have been pretty dormant in recent
years in her marriage with her husband, the loving but passionless plumber Tim
the situation, including Jen’s own doubts about her same-sex feelings for Macy,
cause the couple to break up, Macy taking off. Things are further complicated
by the fact that Macy is African-American. Racism doesn’t seem to play a part
in Della’s no-bake decision; “You know I don’t see color,” she says when
telling Tim about the pair. However, racism has certainly strengthened the
militancy of Macy’s outloo k on the world. In fact, the play’s most gripping
moments come when Macy relates the experiences of her youth as a gay black
Debra Jo Rupp and Dan Daily
On the other
end of the scale, there’s one awkward sequence in which Della attempts to lure
a reluctant Tim into having sex. It plays like Tennessee Williams had been
hired to write an episode for I Love Lucy. Hopefully, Lucy would have
For the most
part, though, Brunstetter’s writing has a soft-focus grace, with easy-to-take
jokes and likable characters. And despite the upsets that occur during the
course of the play, she wraps everything up in a happy ending. It may not be entirely
credible and the sweetness may get a little sticky, but the good intentions are
evident. It’s as if rose-colored glasses were being forced onto the eyes of the
Manhattan Theatre Club’s long-time artistic director, has directed with an
effortless panache and guided her quartet of actors into appealing
performances. Rupp makes Della completely endearing, with just enough edge to
keep her overflowing sweetness from turning saccharine. Her opening monologue
on how baking a cake requires following the time-tested recipe with no short
cuts is guaranteed to immediately win you over. You just can’t call a
good-natured, dedicated woman like Della a bigot.
Angelson also convincingly demonstrate the love and frictions between Macy and
Jen, and Daily gives Tim a winning aura of aging machismo.
production also has the deliciousness of John Lee Beatty’s set designs. The
assortment of cakes on display in Della’s bakery glow on occasion from within.
Philip S. Rosenberg is the lighting designer. The costumes by Tom Broecker
reach their zenith in the glamorous wedding garb that appears near the play’s
The Cake offers more than some tasty morsels.
But at the same time, in trying to give us both a thorny problem play and a
feel-good entertainment, Brunstetter may be proving the old adage that you
can’t have your cake and eat it, too.
Manhattan Theatre Club, New York City Center Stage 1
131 West 55th