Daddy Review: An Interracial Love/Hate Triangle Starring Alan Cumming, Charlayne Woodard

“Daddy,” a play by Jeremy O. Harris, who made his Off-Broadway debut a few months ago with his controversial “Slave Play,” could be accurately described as a porn melodrama about a love/hate triangle. The triangle consists of Alan Cumming as Andre, an older white art collector; his young black lover Franklin, an artist (Ronald Peet); and Franklin’s religious mother, Zora (Charlayne Woodard), who disapproves of his son’s relationship.

But that description doesn’t completely capture this ambitious, intelligent, and in-your-face provocative play, rendered astonishing under the direction of Danya Taymor and the terrific performances of its cast. Among the delights of this joint production of The New Group and Vineyard Theater: a working swimming pool, used often, liberally spritzing the theatergoers in the first row; a gospel choir that the script describes as “Franklin’s forgotten heart and soul” ; larger than human-size dolls; a couple of erotic spanking sessions; frank and frequent nudity; a dissection of the modern art world; a vivisection of a gay relationship; a confession of black self-hatred; and a last inning surreal reveal that gives a deeper meaning to the title.
We first meet Franklin and Andre on the night after they themselves have first met, at a nightclub, around the pool in Andre’s sleek modern house in Bel Air, a ritzy neighborhood in L.A. Matt Saunders’ set, appointed with recognizable works of modern art, looks like it’s lifted from a David Hockney painting (complete with the beautiful young man swimming in the pool.) Franklin gossips about famous artists. Andre rubs his face up and down Franklin’s legs. They are both high. They both get naked. The three-member gospel choir is in the background from that very first scene.
Franklin soon moves in with Andre. We next meet Franklin’s best friends, Max and Bellamy, and his art dealer Alessia. It’s not until the second of three acts that his mother Zora pays a visit.
Although “Daddy” is subtitled in the program “A Melodrama,” there is less of an over-the-top plot here than that genre designation generally implies. “Daddy” focuses more on an exploration of the characters. Harris even offers some of them up with an edge of satire. But the intelligence and relative subtlety of the direction and performances smooths that edge into credible characters. As his friends, Tommy Dorfman as Max and Kahyun Kim as Bellamy are hilariously but believably self-centered and L.A.-millennial inarticulate. Bellamy considers them so close that the three of them have “Not friendship. Familyship.” But even as they luxuriate in Franklin’s new surroundings, they criticize him for rushing into this May-September relationship. Hari Nef is spot-on as Alessia, Franklin’s art agent, as she tries to cover up her surprise that, as she sees it, Franklin has become a kept man: “It’s the Medicis, the Guggenheims, the Rubells,
the Getty’s, that are responsible for all the art we love. So don’t be ashamed.”

Charlayne Woodard does wonders with Zora, who prays frequently, talks about the devil, quotes Scripture as a weapon, calls Andre Methuselah, and belittles Franklin in ways that make him regress to child-like behavior. But at the same time, she comes off as chic and no-nonsense, rather than fanatical and absurd.
The first encounter between Andre and Zora is precious, showing the distance between A and Z.
“And what do your people do?” Zora asks.
“ Which people?”
“Oh excuse me, I mean your parents, family.
He answers “they do all sorts of things. None of it of much interest. Or with much interest.” Then he asks her the same. “We come from a factory town. Furniture folk.
Lot of work with our hands. Before that we were tobacco folk.
Again, work with our hands.” Franklin, she observes, has found a way to work with his hands, creating dolls such as those he played with as a child.

But of course it’s the performances of celebrated veteran Alan Cumming and relative newcomer Ronald Peet that form the center of “Daddy,” and they are bravely naked in more ways than one. The interaction between Andre and Franklin is sometimes strange, often bluntly erotic, but stimulating in other ways as well. In one fascinating, even-handed conversation that reveals an insight about art, and the perhaps unbridgeable gap between white and black in America, Franklin discusses the work of an unnamed black woman artist, and how Andre only sees the beauty in her work, not the pain that comes along with it.

I didn’t fully board the bandwagon for “Slave Play,” which, for all its intelligence and provocation, I found too derivative, diffuse, intellectualized, and too long. This second play is far longer, but it is also more focused, less airily cerebral (though just as intelligent), more original. Is it flawless? (Is anything?) Could Franklin’s behavior in Act III be made less weirdly melodramatic? (Well, we were warned.) Could the arc of Andre and Franklin’s relationship be spelled out more clearly? I could quibble. But my heart belongs to “Daddy.”

Daddy
The New Group and Vineyard Theatre at Signature Center.
Written by Jeremy O. Harris. Directed by Danya Taymor,
Scenic Design by Matt Saunders. Costume Design by Montana Levi Blanco. Lighting Design by Isabella Byrd. Sound Design by Lee Kinney. Hair, Wig and Makeup Design by Cookie Jordan. Vocal Arrangements by Darius Smith. Original Music and Arrangements by Darius Smith and Lee Kinney. Intimacy and Fight Direction by Claire Warden. Movement Coordination by Darrell Moultrie. Doll Design by Tschabalala Self.

Cast: Carrie Compere (Gospel Choir), Alan Cumming (Andre), Tommy Dorfman (Max), Kahyun Kim (Bellamy), Denise Manning (Gospel Choir), Hari Nef (Alessia), Onyie Nwachukwu (Gospel Choir), Ronald Peet (Franklin) and Charlayne Woodard (Zora).
Running time: Two hours and 45 minutes, including two intermissions.
Theater tickets: $40 – $135
Daddy is scheduled through March 31, 2019. It is entirely sold out. I’d be surprised if it’s not extended.

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Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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