Bekah Brunstetter’s play “The Cake” did not turn out to be what I expected. Upon hearing that the play dealt with refusing to make a cake for a gay couple, I assumed it would involve a legal battle that paralleled what happened with the real-life story of the situation that made headlines and engendered a court case. Fortunately, I was wrong. In “The Cake,” presented by Manhattan Theatre Club and directed by Lynn Meadow, the issue is dealt with in terms of relations between the characters involved, not as a political drama, and that gives it a fresh take.
A bakery in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, is lined with an attractive assortment of cakes on wide shelves in the background (bright scenic design by John Lee Beatty). The baker is Della, played by Debra Jo Rupp in a luminous performance that is entertaining and ultimately emotionally critical to the plot and relationships.
Della is scheduled to take part in a TV baking contest and she occasionally fantasizes about the broadcast as if it were in progress. At one point she extends her imagination to the host talking about wanting sex with her, a revelatory fantasy indicating a repressed horny need that she feels.
The central issue arises when Jen (Genevieve Angelson) and Macy (Marinda Anderson), an African American woman, want to have a wedding cake made. The idea that Jen, a local young woman well-known to Della is to marry a woman, stuns Della, whose instinct is to say she is too booked at time of the wedding. Her values cannot abide assisting in such a wedding. But she is troubled by having to refuse.
Della’s husband Tim (Dan Daily) is adamant against Della baking the cake. We get a view of their relationship, with Tim affable, overweight and taking his wife for granted. Della, in a strong emotional scene revealing her sexual desire, complains about how long it has been since they had sex. One day in the bakery she exposes herself to him, and his response is to put her off and leave.
But at home one night, he awaits her in bed with clothes off and a load of mashed potatoes covering his privates, apparently for her to devour. Her desperate speech at the bakery had made an impression and the bedroom scene, at first very funny, evolves into a tender one in which their basic love for each other is expressed. Daily gives an excellent performance. (He also provides the sonorous voice of the broadcast host George.)
In a different intimate bedroom scene, we see the dynamics of an argumentative relationship between Jen and Macy, and one weakness in the play is that they seem so incompatible. It does not appear likely that they would become a happy couple.
What’s interesting is the play’s concept that Della, with sincere beliefs, is increasingly troubled by her refusal to provide the cake. This isn’t a situation to be resolved by legalities, but by a woman who feels she wants to do the right thing, with her societal and religious values pitted against her human feelings. The play’s resolution makes for more potent drama and perspective than a rehash of the real-life legal battles might have been. All four characters are people struggling to find their way. In that sense, the issue of the cake becomes a catalyst, not an ideological war. At New York City Center Stage 1, 131 West 55th Street. Reviewed March 8, 2019.