The Cake by Bekah Brunstetter, now playing at Manhattan Theatre Club's Stage I at New York City Center, is a tasty treat that’s not just empty calories. This is one snack your nutritionist and your mother would approve of. The Cake is food for the soul, full of filling ingredients that will make you think and feel, as well as satisfy your sweet tooth with plenty of laughter. Just know that you’re going to leave with a hankering for baked goods.
Della (Debra Jo Rupp) is the proprietor of, what else, a bakery called “Della’s Sweets” in North Carolina. She has been married to Tim (Dan Daily), a local plumber, for all of her adult life and they have no children. Della’s life is ruled by following instructions to the letter. From cake recipes, to her husband’s commands, to the Bible’s Commandments. She is a sweet woman whose life has not turned out the way she thought, and she has sublimated her need for affection into her confections. When the play opens, she has been chosen as a contestant on “The Great American Baking Show,” the absolute greatest honor she could think of and her crowning achievement. She believes that if she sticks to the classics and follows her recipes faithfully, without trying to experiment or get “creative,” she has a good shot at winning.
Jen (Genevieve Angelson), is the daughter of Della’s late best friend. Now an adult and living in New York City, they don’t get to see each other too often, but their bond is still strong. They love each other dearly and consider themselves family. When Della is interviewed by Macy (Marinda Anderson), a Yankee from Brooklyn who clearly thinks sugar is Public Enemy #1 and who refuses to so much as taste a bite of cake, it comes as quite a shock to Della that she is in town with Jen.
But, when Della finds out that Jen and Macy are in town to plan Jen’s wedding, she is overjoyed and volunteers to make The Cake. Hard on the heels of the wedding announcement itself, when she learns who Jen is marrying, she finds her schedule for the month of the wedding is overbooked and reneges on her offer. Both Della and Jen have to struggle through the emotional fallout of this decision and figure out who they are and who they want to be.
The brilliance of Brunstetter’s The Cake is that it takes on some very weighty social and personal issues head-on with sensitivity, honesty and humor. It neither vilifies or deifies anyone’s point of view, rather it humanizes everyone. And while it does not provide a fairy-tale ending between two people who see things very differently, it allows them to understand, respect and continue to love each other. Which, it must be said, is such a good outcome in this day and age! If only we as a nation could learn that trick.
Of course, The Cake wouldn’t work without the superb Debra Jo Rupp playing Della. This is her 4th time treading the boards with the character and it’s clear she knows who Della is on a cellular level. Feisty, strong, sweet, scared, determined, loving, longing, all the colors of this 50-something woman are on display in her portrayal. And Dan Daily does a tremendous job of making Tim a real, feeling, human who we wind up rooting for and not just a caricature.
And last, but certainly not least, kudos to the production team that created the incredible set, scenic designer John Lee Beatty and lighting designer Philip S. Rosenberg, which had glowing cakes in the air and on the shelves of the bakery. And, to the Prop Department, who I learned took cake making classes so that they can make fresh cakes for every performance that line the bottom shelf and the display case. I’m told that the cast and crew has gotten blasé about the smell of frosting that permeates the air backstage. I don’t think I ever would!
(Photo by Joan Marcus)