Review of "Daddy", starring Alan Cumming, at Pershing Square Signature Center

  • Our critic's rating:
    Date:
    March 6, 2019
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    "Daddy" is pretty much what you think it might be, judging from the title. You would be advised against assuming, however, when it comes to Jeremy O. Harris. Harris does more than color outside the box - he rebuilds the box from the ground up.

    This is the second play in as many days that I have seen that reminds me of Charles Mee. The other was Marys Seacole by Jackie Sibblies Drury. These are writers who prefer flight to walking. Neither is bound by the normal trajectory of story telling where one event logically leads to another. There is a beginning and a destination. The journey from the first to the last, however, is populated by twists and turns. If you try to apply in-the-box thinking, you run the risk of leaving you in the dust.

    With "Daddy", the time is the present. The place L.A. The home of Andre (Alan Cumming) that looks like something out of a David Hockney painting. There is a sizable pool featured - almost a character in itself. Andre is an art collector with a Twombly on one wall and a room full of Basquiats just for starters. His latest acquisition is not a painting but a man several years his junior. Franklin (Ronald Peet) is a man whose charm could make him pass for innocent. This is not quite the case. He is about to burst onto the arts scene with a solo exhibition of soft sculptures. Franklin's mother Zora (Charlayne Woodard) calls them as she sees them - coon babies. Career and Andre call from one direction. Zora and history call from another. Franklin is on the edge of a chasm and it is his mother and Andre who flank him.

    Exactly why these dolls are living in rarefied air is never made clear. They just are. Like many an element in this play they are presented as fact. Andre and Franklin are the first facts. They are passionate and testy. Driven and insecure. Dangerous. The art gallery owner Alessia (Hari Nef) is a fact. She is crazy about these sculptures and the ruckus they are stirring up. Friends of Franklin Bellamy (Kahyun Kim) and Max (Tommy Dorfman) are also facts. Max is an out of work actor (the script tells us that this is the first time he has been in a play - dig that) whose main job seems to be stoking his resentment toward his bad luck. Bellamy has no career that is discernible and spends a great deal of time courting her followers on social media. Zora is the final fact added to the mix. She is a majestic presence - Franklin is her son. If he belongs to anyone, it is her.

    All these characters collect around and in the fabulous pool. Bathing suits optional. They are escorted through the story by a surprising but perfect addition: a gospel choir of some immense talent and strength (Carrie Compere, Denise Manning and Onyie Nwachukwu). The choir is the eternal shadow of all that happens. They are the overseers of all. We can hear them before we see them. They show up en mass along with the formidable Zora who first appears standing in the dead center of the pool, leaving what we know is not the first message on her son's voice mail.

    Andre and Franklin's relationship is complicated, and Harris lets us in on just nearly every element there is. There is sex, nudity, rough treatment, tenderness, challenges and intellectual sparring. And there is something missing - some element soon which we cannot put our fingers on. This missing element is what makes this relationship, indeed every element of this story, at risk. With the arrival of Zora, this missing element is called out.

    Harris refers to this play, presented by The New Group and Vineyard Theatre at Pershing Square Signature Center, as a melodrama. It is complete with exaggerated events and characters. It is also, however, compelling. There is a sort of electricity that these actors create - this is a superb ensemble - and Danya Taymor's direction deftly moves our attention from person to person, object to object. We are never left to wonder where to focus, and we are too engaged to ask why. All bets are off from the moment this play begins. We are on a rollercoaster ride directly through the hearts of these characters. As the melodrama winds up (with the addition of an oddly placed coda) we are without words because everything that needed to be said was said.

    Well done. Well done indeed.

    (Photo by Monique Carboni)