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Theatre in Review: "Daddy" (The New Group at Pershing Square Signature Center)

Ronald Peet, Charlayne Woodard. Photo: Monique Carboni.

Jeremy O. Harris has the kind of problem colleagues his age might envy -- but it's a problem, nevertheless. Having arrived in a funnel cloud of controversy while still a student at Yale Drama School, he is, arguably, facing demands that he isn't yet ready to fulfill. Earlier this season he made a splash with Slave Play, a savage comedy about race and sexuality -- in which three mixed-race couples, both gay and straight, confront their sexual performance problems by acting out plantation scenarios -- earning strong reviews and plenty of buzz; that a young black woman started an online petition to have the production canceled only added to its cachet. His recent essay, "Decolonizing My Desire," about his sexual coming of age among white boyfriends, also caused a flurry of comment.

Slave Play was certainly overpraised, in part because of Harris' sheer audacity in pushing audience buttons, but if it is an overlong and exhaustingly argued piece, it is also imaginative, theatrical, and often very funny. "Daddy," another concerted attempt at riding audiences' nerves, is another matter altogether. It is sufficiently problematic to raise the question of whether this young artist's portfolio isn't being opportunistically raided by theatre companies eager to get in on the next big thing. "Daddy," which is directed by Danya Taymor, has been given a slick, Broadway-worthy production; I'm not so sure she and her colleagues have done Harris any favors.

Like Slave Play, "Daddy" deals with an interracial relationship, but its intergenerational aspect may be more important. Andre, a fabulously wealthy Bel Air art collector -- his Midcentury Modern palace, complete with swimming pool, has been done full justice by the set designer, Matt Saunders -- has brought home his latest acquisition: a young black artist named Franklin. The young man, high on something more than life, is dazzled by the Twomblys, Calders, and Lichtensteins that adorn the walls. Not that his critical faculties have been dulled: Franklin, on a drug-fueled talking jag, is less impressed with the roomful of Basquiats, sniffing, "Your interior architect either has bad taste or wanted their fee to be higher. Because right now you seem like the kind of dude who has a shit ton of money, but like, no guidance, no education, and no taste. Like, this screams nouveau riche." Andre's response? "Be mine."

Franklin, by the way, is in his twenties, and Andre is pushing sixty. Franklin, knowing a sweet gig when he sees it, moves in and continues to work on his upcoming gallery show, which, by his own description, consists of "these weird dolls of black boys. Possibly me, all naked, deformed, and, like reminiscent of Xavier Roberts Cabbage Patch Kids or, more precisely, Martha Nelson Thomas 'Original Doll Babies'." The show, he adds, "evokes a sense of nostalgia. While also, like, well, according to the press release, recontextualizing what it means to be a black man." It would be putting it mildly to note that such attitudinizing is lost on Andre, who can't stop ogling the well-toned Franklin, whom he calls "Naomi," after Naomi Campbell. Franklin's small posse of friends comes along for the ride. One of them, the disgruntled Max, grumbles that Andre is a "sugar despot" even as he helps himself to the endless supplies of sushi and champagne available at poolside. Franklin defends his new relationship against Max's carping; however, he might do well to remember his earlier comment, that "art loses its worth the minute it can be bought." As the play suggests, this isn't just true of paintings; moving in with Andre, Franklin takes the first step toward total psychological disintegration.

This situation is not without dramatic possibilities, but "Daddy" is so sketchily conceived that the characters barely exist. We never learn a single fact about Andre -- his career, background, friends, and any interests, aside from collecting paintings and young men, are left in the dark -- and precious little more about Franklin, except that he is about as stable as mercury poured out of a vial. (Andre never seems to notice that Franklin tends to enter fugue states, during which he repeatedly slaps himself on the head.) The script suggests that the experience of taking the passive role in anal sex with Andre -- the play is loaded with softcore action -- triggers something in Franklin, who is soon calling the older man "Daddy" and enthusiastically being on the receiving end of spanking sessions. Ironically, in a play concerned with objectification, both leads are little more than objects themselves, defined entirely by race and age.

Big trouble sets in with the arrival of Zora, Franklin's mother, who wields the sharpest of spiritual switchblades, usually aimed in her son's direction. Characterizing Franklin's show as a display of "coon babies," she adds, "If I had known white people were gonna love those little dolls you were always making, I would've had you out there selling them when you were little, Joe Jackson style. Then maybe I wouldn't have broke my back sending you to that damn art school." It's never clear how she feels about having a gay son, but she has no use whatsoever for Andre, even when he tries to buy her compliance with gifts from Herm├Ęs. Again, she is a notion rather than a person; aside from her many castrating qualities, all we know about Zora is that she was ill treated by Franklin's father, whom she later angrily turned away. In the sum total of the play's psychological observation, this event, which traumatized the young boy, explains his taste for father-son role play.

Aside from its killing overlength -- it takes three acts and nearly three hours to play out --"Daddy" is overloaded with schemes and strategies that do little to add interest to its crudely rendered tug of war. By Act III, Franklin, whose show was a smash, is reduced to running around in his briefs, sucking his thumb and calling Andre and Zora "Daddy" and "Mommy" in a high, whiny voice. His primary activity involves arranging various tableaux with the giant dolls -- based on himself and his parent figures -- that he has sewn, ostensibly to be part of a new show. Other touches include a three-person choir that wanders in and out; a sultry rendition, by Andre, of the George Michael hit "Father Figure"; and a bizarre wedding feast loaded with personal confessions and climaxing with an everyone-into-the-pool moment that, I think, is meant to serve as a kind of baptism. Watching these ever-more-lurid proceedings, I was unaccountably reminded of The Killing of Sister George, Frank Marcus' pulpy lesbian stage shocker of the 1960s, in which a couple of grasping middle-aged adults do battle over a sweet young thing who is regressing, alarmingly, to a childhood state.

Taymor's direction has its moments -- particularly the running gag in which Andre, upstage, looks both ways, as if unsure how to get around his own mansion -- but the most she can do is orchestrate the script's many operatic gestures. In any case, having almost nothing to work with, Alan Cumming does his considerable best to make a compelling figure out of Andre. Charlayne Woodard, a commanding actress who should come around more often, is thoroughly hair-raising as Zora, whose hobby appears to be cutting Franklin down to size. (Eying him coldly, she says, "I'm sorry I can't talk to you the way you want me to about how great you are, how clever all your little ideas are, but that's 'cause you ain't great, they ain't clever, and they weren't yours to begin with." The moment when she asks Franklin to describe sex with Andre is one for the books, as well.) As Franklin, the clearly gifted Ronald Peet wrestles with an amorphous character who quickly implodes, leaving no trace of a coherent personality. Tommy Dorfman and Kahyun Kim have their amusing moments as Franklin's airheaded friends, especially when Kim, in a pair of borrowed Gucci sunglasses, arranges herself elaborately on a lounge chair for a selfie that, she is certain, will immediately start trending online. Hari Nef is solid as a gallerist with the ability to spin any sort of nonsense into an effective press release.

In addition to Saunders' sleek, art-filled set, Isabella Byrd's lighting shifts seamlessly between sunlight washes and strategically deployed bursts of saturated color; Montana Levi Blanco's costumes consist of an annotated collection of minimalist LA chic, neatly contrasted with Zora's boldly colored ensembles; and Lee Kinney's sound design reinforces his original music as well as symphonic bursts, hip-hop cuts, and that George Michael evergreen. (Kinney also wrote the vocal music for that choir with Darius Smith).

"Daddy," however, is all sound and fury, a series of baroque flourishes erected around a hollow core. Perhaps to absolve himself from creating a stage filled with stick figures, Harris has labeled the play "a melodrama" -- but this shouldn't be a license to dispense with characterization altogether. Speaking of his exhibit, Franklin says, "If these dolls are possibly me, I want each of the Daddys in the room to see me." But, really, what is there to see? Slave Play was rough, but it had something; "Daddy" wasn't ready for a first-class Off Broadway production. -- David Barbour

(6 March 2019)

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