'The Cake': Theater Review

Courtesy of Joan Marcus
Debra Jo Rupp in 'The Cake'
Sweet, but empty calories.
3/31/2019

Debra Jo Rupp plays a conservative Southern baker asked to create a wedding cake for her lesbian goddaughter in the new comedy by 'This Is Us' writer Bekah Brunstetter.

A play about the refusal of a religious-minded Southern baker to create a wedding cake for a gay couple would seem to be asking for trouble. The hot-button topic, inspired by a real-life case that went to the Supreme Court, sounds like a recipe for theatrical controversy. Especially when it presents a largely sympathetic portrait of its central character and is being performed in ultra-liberal Manhattan. So the biggest surprise about The Cake is how sweetly inoffensive it is.

Bekah Brunstetter's play, receiving its New York premiere after several regional productions, revolves around Della (Debra Jo Rupp), the proprietress of the old-fashioned Della's Sweets bakery in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Della has been plying her trade for many years and has very fixed opinions about how cakes should be made. "What you have to do is really, truly, follow the directions," she instructs us in an opening monologue about her methods. She's talking about a recipe, but she might as well be referring to the directions as given in the Good Book. It's not surprising that among her proudest creations is an elaborate Noah's Ark cake.

It's also not surprising that Della finds herself in a predicament after the arrival in town of Jen (Genevieve Angelson), the daughter of her late best friend. Jen, who's about to get married, wants Della to bake her wedding cake. Trouble is — for Della, at least — that Jen's betrothed is Macy (Marinda Anderson), a female journalist from Brooklyn. Furthering the cultural divide is the fact that Macy avoids gluten and thinks sugar is more addictive than cocaine. She's even more dismissive when Della excitedly tells her that she's going to be a contestant on The Great American Baking Show.

"I can't do food TV," Macy tells her. "It fetishizes an industry that's killing hundreds of thousands of people a year."

Even while Della struggles with whether or not to fulfill Jen's request, she's facing the reality that her childless marriage to her good ol' boy, plumber husband Tim (Dan Daily) has grown hopelessly stale. She desperately attempts to bring back sparks by luring him to her bakery where she poses nearly nude, covered with cake frosting, to no avail. 

Brunstetter, a writer-producer on NBC's This Is Us, isn't particularly interested here in exploiting her topic's incendiary aspects or demonizing the baker who can't get past her notion that marriage is strictly between a man and a woman. The result is that the play has a decided sitcom quality, its dialogue filled with amusing one-liners and Della depicted as a good-natured innocent trying to do right by both her unofficial goddaughter and her religious beliefs. If anything, it's Macy, the East Coast journalist, who comes across as the most stereotypical character, rigid and unyielding in her ultra-liberal attitudes.

The play ultimately isn't very thought-provoking, but it's certainly entertaining. Its gentleness feels almost reassuring in this era of nasty political and cultural divides. It's hard not to wish the playwright had explored the situation in greater depth or given her characters more nuance. But Brunstetter's crowd-pleasing instincts prove spot-on, especially in the hilarious scene in which Della's husband also attempts to rekindle their marriage in gustatory fashion. Suffice it to say that you'll have difficulty the next time you attempt to dig into a plate of mashed potatoes.

Rupp's terrific performance is key to the evening's success. The actress, best known for her regular role on Fox's That '70s Show, uses her well-honed comic instincts to full effect here, making Della as sympathetic as she is lovable. Daily provides solid backup as her supportive if clueless husband, although Anderson and Angelson aren't able to do much with their underwritten roles.

Director Lynne Meadow provides the expert polish for which Manhattan Theatre Club productions are well known. And John Lee Beatty has designed the sort of gorgeously homey, old-fashioned bakery set, complete with rows of gleaming cakes, that could easily incite confectionary sales if only the play had an intermission.

Venue: New York City Center Stage I, New York
Cast: Marinda Anderson, Genevieve Angelson, Dan Daily, Debra Jo Rupp
Playwright: Bekah Brunstetter
Director: Lynne Meadow
Set designer: John Lee Beatty
Costume designer: Tom Broeckner
Lighting designer: Philip S. Rosenberg
Music & sound designer: John Gromada
Presented by Manhattan Theatre Club