BWW Review: Bekah Brunstetter's Sweet, Provocative and Multi-Layered THE CAKE
"I have to say so. When things are wrong."
"When they seem wrong to you."
"When they are wrong."
The conflict between seeing multiple sides of an issue and the insistence that there is only one correct side is the power that fuels Bekah Brunstetter sweet and provocative multi-layered comedy/drama The Cake, a fictional story that offers evenly sliced arguments regarding the news-making debates involving same-sex couples planning their wedding receptions and bakers who decline their cake-creating business.
Best known for her Emmy-nominated writing for television's "This Is Us, Brunstetter's father is former North Carolina Senator Peter Brunstetter, who supported the Defense of Marriage Act, defining the institution as being exclusively between a man and a woman. She has always been a supporter of same-sex marriage rights and has spoken openly about their loving and respectful relationship despite publicly holding opposing views on an issue that affects the lives and rights of so many.
So, at the heart of The Cake, presented by Manhattan Theatre Club in an endearing and frequently moving production staged by Artistic Director Lynne Meadow, is a loving relationship between two people of conflicting moral beliefs, who are both pained at the thought of their actions (or inaction) hurting the other.
You can practically smell a generous whiff of buttercream frosting with just one look at the beautifully quaint North Carolina bake shop designer John Lee Beatty provides for the play's central character, Della. As played with adorably perky wholesomeness and a wonderful comic sense by Debra Jo Rupp, Della is quite a refreshing whiff of buttercream herself. A bit of a local celebrity, she's ready to see one of her fondest dreams come true, as she's been selected to compete on the weekly television reality program, "The Great American Baking Show."
"See, what you have to do is really, truly follow the directions," Della explains while placing the finishing decorative touches on her latest creation. "If you're not gonna give your time and your worship to directions that have been crafted by trial and error, you might as well do a darn cake from a box, which tastes like scotch tape dipped in Splenda if you're asking."
We'll soon learn that this passion for following recipe instructions to the letter, never being tempted by variation or new ideas, is also a credo for other aspects of her life.
A surprise visit by Jen (Genevieve Angelson), the daughter of one of Della's closest friends, now deceased, has the baker all aglow. Jen moved up north long ago and now resides in Brooklyn, but she's back in her hometown to fulfill a promise she made to her mother, that when the time comes for her to be married, she would have the ceremony in the same place her parents were wed.
Della immediately volunteers to bake the wedding cake, but her excitement turns to a nervous fluster when it's revealed that the woman accompanying Jen, Macy (Marinda Anderson), is not simply her friend, but her fiancé. Looking at her schedule, she now claims it's too short notice during a busy time of the year, a perfectly legitimate (and legal) response. Jen knows she's lying, but plays along, not wanting to put a woman who has been like a mother to her in a position to compromise her religious beliefs.
But left alone with her good ol' boy husband Tim (Dan Daily), Della, moved by seeing how happy Jen and Macy looked together, hints that perhaps variations on life's time-honored recipes aren't necessarily a bad thing.
"It's just not natural," Tim insists.
"Well, neither is confectioner's sugar!," Della counters, making it clear that she hasn't yet made up her mind. Her internal conflict is humorous presented by the playwright with fantasy appearances on the baking show that turn judgmental on Della.
Meanwhile, Macy has noticed that Jen is a bit of a different person back in her home town; willing to downplay the realities of her life to those who would disapprove. For northerner Macy, the south might as well be a foreign country where liberals are in the minority.
"I'm black and I'm agnostic and I'm a woman and I'm queer. I'm in a world that is not designed for me."
A social media post turns the personal conflict into a national story and a confrontation between Della and Macy regarding the purpose of marriage inspires the baker to attempt to fix a dissatisfying aspect of her relationship with Tim.
If the audience is intended to disagree with Della's hesitancy to provide Jen and Macy's wedding cake, the playwright gives us plenty of reasons to sympathize anyway, especially when Rupp expertly plays a comic scene where her character attempts to turn up the heat in her marriage.
If there seems to be a missing ingredient in The Cake, it's because the situation appears to only be about the civil rights issue of purchasing a cake with no mention of the First Amendment issue of what messages of advocacy the wedding cake might be decorated with. Would Della be happy to provide a generic wedding cake with no decorations indicating it's to celebrate the union of two women? Would that satisfy Jen, Macy and the law? But perhaps that's another story for another play.