In “The Cake,” Debra Jo Rupp (the mother on “That 70s Show”) portrays Della, a Christian baker in North Carolina who refuses to bake a cake for a lesbian wedding.
If the story is inspired by the Supreme Court case decided last year, Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, playwright Bekah Brunstetter, who is a writer for “This Is Us,” makes it personal in several ways.
One of the future brides, Jen (Genevieve Angelson), is the daughter of Della’s best friend, who died five years ago. Della, who is childless, views Jen like a daughter.
When Jen comes down from her residence in Brooklyn to her hometown of Winston, N.C. to have the wedding she’s always dreamt about, she naturally visits Della’s Sweets, hoping that Della will bake her favorite pink lemonade cake for the wedding. Learning that Jen’s fiancée is a woman – Macy (Marinda Anderson) – Della feels compelled because of her religious beliefs to say no, making the excuse that she’s too busy. But it kills her to reject somebody she loves, and it makes her question her worldview and the way she lives her life.
The playwright makes Della a sympathetic character — good-natured, ebullient, well-meaning, a colorful Paula Deen-like character without the racism. The actress makes her a delight, with great comic timing. In the wonderful opening monologue, Della demonstrates how to make a cake, offering her philosophy of cake-baking along the way: You must follow the directions exactly – “worship” them — in order for the cake to taste right. “It’s the taste of time and obedience.” – which offers a clue as to her moral rigidity. Later, she is feeling torn, while snuggling in bed with her lovable but less-than-affectionate husband Tim (Dan Daily), a plumber. She tries to explore her conscience with him as sounding board. Tim doesn’t want to hear it. He thinks she was right to turn down the lesbians.
Tim: It’s – it’s just not natural.
Della: Well, neither is confectioner’s sugar!
Bekah Brunstetter has told interviewers that she wrote “The Cake” as a way to explain her support for gay rights and same-sex marriage to her parents. Her father, Peter Brunstetter, is a Republican politician from North Carolina who supported an anti-gay state bill that defined marriage as between a man and a woman.
This may explain why Della feels like the only fully believable character in the play, with the other three characters primarily serving the mechanics of the plot. This is especially true of Macy. After the opening monologue, the set (delectably designed by John Lee Beatty) opens up to reveal Della’s entire shop, with Macy sitting in the corner, inexplicably scribbling. Macy doesn’t tell Della who she is. As far as Della knows, Macy is just a customer. In the ensuing conversation, Macy tells Della that she doesn’t eat cake, that she thinks sugar is poison (“more addictive than cocaine”) and gluten evil. This seems to serve two purposes. It allows us to see in Della’s response how pleasant a woman she is (and perhaps, since Macy is black, that Della isn’t a racist.) It also sets up Macy’s late-in-the-play conversion to the joys of cake-eating (which I suppose would be a spoiler, if it weren’t so predictable.) But how does Macy’s deliberate rudeness in this scene make any sense? She knows how much her fiancée Jen and Della mean to one another. We’re told later how smart Macy is, but how is it a sign of intelligence to let loose on cakes to a woman who owns a cake shop? That scene brings into question the viability of the relationship between Macy and Jen, who is depicted as just as good-natured as Della, and ashamed of her attraction to women.
The cast does what it can to charm us into accepting the characters as credible. Even Rupp has to work hard to ground a few scenes, particularly the ones about the Great American Bake Off TV show, which is considering her as a contestant. Sprinkled through the play are scenes that Della is imagining in which the lights change, and a voiceover of the TV host says things to her that are often crude, and less funny than they’re meant to be.
The play sidesteps some of the pricklier elements of the issue it raises, apparently trying to be as good natured and inoffensive as its central character. And there are some lovely moments in the play. If it has too many artificial ingredients, still “The Cake” is undeniably sweet.
Click on any photo by Joan Marcus to see it enlarged.
MTC at City Center
Written by Bekah Brunstetter; Directed by Lynne Meadow.
Set design by John Lee Beatty, costume design by Tom Broecker. Lighting design by Philip S. Rosenberg, sound design by John Gromada
Cast: Debra Jo Rupp, Marinda Anderson, Genevieve Angelson and Dan Daily
Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission
Theater tickets: $89
The Cake is scheduled to run through March 31, 2019