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Theatre in Review: The Cake (Manhattan Theatre Club/City Center Stage I)

Debra Jo Rupp. Photo: Joan Marcus.

The tastiest thing by far in The Cake is Debra Jo Rupp, so much so that you'll hunger for extra servings. She is Della, proprietor of a Winston, North Carolina, bakery -- cakes are her specialty; no, they're her raison d'ĂȘtre -- and she quickly wins the audience over with a cascade of screwball chatter thickly overlaid with Southern molasses. "See, what you have to do is really, truly follow the directions," she says. (Della, you should know, speaks in italics.) She is, ostensibly, talking about cake-making, but the speech resonates for other reasons, which we'll get to in a moment. First, however, feast on her baking methodology, which doubles as her philosophy.

With no small sorrow, Della decries those foolish would-be cooks who fall prey to "skimpin' on milk, skimpin' on butter; they try and use tofu butter or whatever, milk made outta nuts; what is this world?" On the same theme, she insists, "I don't care whether or not your eggs were ever caged, whether they ever went to the movies." And, issuing her own form of fatwa against those who think recipes exist to be circumvented by shortcuts, "I say to those people: You are wrong. 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. If you're gonna do it from scratch, you gotta Follow. The. Directions."

Within minutes, Rupp has claimed the audience for herself, consolidating her hold in the following scene, in which she makes conversation with Macy, a visitor from New York. Della proudly shows off her chef d'oeuvre, a Noah's Ark cake, complete with marzipan animals, which is too amusing-looking to eat. When Macy mentions having taken part, as a teenager, in a national debate competition, Della can't help blurting out, "Now, see, I just do not see the point of those; how is arguing a skill?" Horrified that Macy won't take a bite (or ten) of her special pink lemonade cake and all but shuddering over the young woman's preference for protein bars and other healthy treats, Della confides, "I tried a gluten free cake and it tasted like the back of my mouth after I have a good cry. Now, that is just wrong." It's a happy meeting of character and actress: Playwright Bekah Brunstetter has crafted a madly scatterbrained steel magnolia, and Rupp brings her fully to life, following each thread of Della's bizarre logic and making it sound thoroughly sensible -- as long as you don't think about it for more than a few seconds.

A comic sketch, no matter how delightful, does not a play make, however, and The Cake is on less solid ground when it turns to other, more serious matters. Macy is visiting Winston with her girlfriend, Jen, a native. Jen's late mother was Della's best friend. Upon hearing that Jen is getting married, Della is only too eager to bake the cake. (After all, being childless, she sees Jen as an honorary daughter.) On hearing that Jen is marrying Macy, she suddenly discovers that she is booked solid for the month and won't be able to oblige. Brunstetter's handling of this little episode, which causes major embarrassment and hurt all around, is just right. We've seen on the news how such incidents set off polarizing national debates; the playwright, looking closer, cannily reveals their toll on human hearts.

The play loses steam, however, as it tracks Della's journey as she reconsiders her religious beliefs and arid marriage to Tim, a jolly, overweight plumber who treats her like an exceptionally bright house pet. Thanks to Rupp's exquisite sensitivity, we feel the shock and confusion of a woman who, all her life, has lived according to convention and, without warning, starts wondering why. Under the honeyed aphorisms and deftly turned gag lines, there is an unflinching honesty at work: She doesn't shy away from the moment when Della quietly lets Jen know that the upcoming marriage would break her mother's heart, or, when forcing Tim to face what has happened to their marriage, she convincingly argues that their sex life has been submerged by shame.

Indeed, Rupp is the sole natural ingredient in a recipe that relies on artificial flavors and high-fructose sweeteners. Tim, who really doesn't approve of Jen's choice, asks. "Didn't she have that boyfriend in college? He was from India or Indiana" -- a distinction that even the most backward rube is surely able to make. When Tim wonders, "How is it that [Jen is] marrying a girl?" Della replies, "Well, I don't know, Tim, I didn't start liking olives 'til just last year, and my whole life before I thought they were like eyes." Turning all Nora Helmer on Tim, she drops this bombshell: "What if I told you one night, I snuck downstairs 'cause I couldn't sleep and I ate a whole broken Bundt cake and I watched The Birdcage and I liked it?" Brunstetter also introduces a too-broad bit of farce in which Della greets Tim wearing only a trench coat, with appliques of butter cream in all the right places; this is followed by a bedroom scene, involving a large lump of mashed potatoes, which gives a new spin to the term oral sex.

Furthermore, by painting Della as largely unthinking and morally under Tim's thumb, Brunstetter diminishes the character: It would have been more interesting to see a woman with theological ideas of her own wrestling with these issues. Also, the playwright portrays Macy and Jen as such a study in contrasts -- Macy, a tough-minded, truth-telling intellectual from inner-city Philadelphia, scarred by an unforgiving father, and Jen, an elfin belle, almost immaturely attached to her family and hometown -- that one isn't entirely sure that their marriage is such a good idea. (Among other things, Jen is determined to blow a substantial legacy, from her mother's estate, on a lavish wedding in Winston that neither Macy nor anyone else wants anything to do with.) An eleventh-hour twist, in which Macy righteously and stupidly commits a vindictive act that has repercussions for Della's career, leaves a bad taste in one's mouth.

Still, under Lynne Meadow's smooth direction, Rupp opens up to us every step of Della's journey to an appreciation of a world that is far more complicated than she ever imagined. (And it is to Brunsteer's credit that she doesn't try to package The Cake in a neat little bakery box, resolving everything in time for the final curtain.) Dan Daily is affable as Tim, a character who never really comes into focus; he also doubles as the unctuous British voice of The Great American Baking Show, which represents the apex of Della's dreams. If Jen and Macy never really seem like a real couple, Genevieve Angelson and Marinda Anderson are individually charming.

John Lee Beatty's set requires three turntables to take us to various locations, but the one fully realized set is the charming interior of Della's shop, with each of her outrageous confections internally illuminated. The rest of the production design -- Tom Broecker's costumes, Philip S. Rosenberg's lighting, and John Gromada's music and sound design -- is solid.

And there is something poignant about the Solomonic decision that the still deeply divided Della makes, trying to honor her beliefs while serving those she loves. And Brunstetter wisely leaves the door ajar, suggesting that the conversation will continue. She even has a small culinary triumph with Macy; cake-making, it appears, can be a means to many ends. -- David Barbour

(13 March 2019)

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