'Daddy': Theater Review

Daddy Production Still 1 - Alan Cumming -  Publicity -H 2019
Courtesy of Matt Saunders

Alan Cumming, Ronald Peet and Charlayne Woodard star in Jeremy O. Harris' play about the battle of wills between a wealthy white Los Angeles art collector and the mother of his much younger black artist lover.

Be warned if you sit in the first few rows at the new play by Jeremy O. Harris. The castmembers frolicking in the onstage pool are bound to splash you. But you won't be safe even if you sit further back, as you'll soon be wading in a pool of the playwright's pretensions.

Harris, who made another sort of splash with his provocative Slave Play, recently seen off-Broadway, is clearly a writer of no small ambitions. But while he harnessed his creative energies to fruitful if sloppy effect in his last effort, "Daddy" reveals him in full self-indulgent mode.

The play is subtitled A Melodrama, and if only. "Melodrama" implies some sort of dramatic action, albeit frequently of the over-the-top variety. But even with its nearly three-hour running time, this lugubrious drama barely manages to work up a sweat, and that's taking into account the copious amounts of full-frontal male nudity. If you ever wondered whether Alan Cumming was circumcised, this is the show for you.

The Scottish actor plays the title role, of sorts. He's Andre, a wealthy, white art collector with a sumptuous Bel Air home containing — as his sexual pickup Franklin (Ronald Peet) marvels, somewhere between a dip in the pool and some drug-fueled sex — "a roomful of Basquiats." Andre soon adds talented African-American artist Franklin to his collection, grooming him for stardom. The younger man moves in almost immediately, at first marveling at, and then quickly becoming accustomed to, his swanky new surroundings.

The chief dramatic conflict, such as it is, stems from the arrival of Zora (Charlayne Woodard), Franklin's disapproving, Bible-quoting mother, whose concern compels her to investigate just what her son has gotten himself into. The setup would seem to hold the promise of juicy battles between the two older characters vying for Franklin's soul. No such luck, with Zora mainly uttering bitchy asides like calling her son's lover "Methuselah," and Andre reduced to varying degrees of a slow burn.

The play attempts satirical commentary on the excesses of the art world and the nouveau riche Los Angeles scene as personified by Franklin's shallow, self-absorbed young friends (Tommy Dorfman, Kahyun Rim) and an equally navel-gazing art gallery owner (Hari Nef), who hopes Franklin will be the Next Big Thing. But they register as little more than caricatures, leaving the humor with no bite. It's certainly preferable, however, to the tortured psychodrama involving Franklin's emotional vulnerability and desperate need for his sugar daddy to be a father figure as well. Despite all this, any potential for dissection of the power dynamics across the race and wealth divide mostly goes unexplored.

To augment the barely existent narrative, Harris applies a series of theatrical flourishes throughout. A gospel-singing trio (Carrie Compere, Denise Manning, Onyie Nwachukwu) acts as a vague Greek chorus, and a series of life-size dolls is introduced. There's a recurring motif involving Franklin's cellphone ringing incessantly. And when all else fails, what better than to have Cumming sing a musical number, in this case the late George Michael's thematically appropriate "Father Figure"?

The play has some sly, funny moments, to be sure. I particularly enjoyed the running sight gag in which Andre seems unsure about where various rooms in his house are located. But they are too few and far between, and the evening seriously goes off the rails in the third act, which features a sort of "Last Supper" takeoff. At one point late in the proceedings there's a blackout and the audience started applauding, as if relieved the play were finally over. It turned out to be a fake-out, but the real ending that came a few minutes later was just as nonsensical and anticlimactic.

There's no faulting the world-premiere production from The New Group and Vineyard Theatre. Danya Taymor's imagistic staging is stylish to a fault, with Matt Saunders' gorgeous set, Isabella Byrd's beautiful lighting and Montana Levi Blanco's fashionable costumes adding to the visual allure as much as the chiseled male bodies on ample display (at age 54, Cumming puts men half his age to shame).

It's a pleasure, as always, to watch Cumming and Woodard, even when they are obviously struggling to bring emotional coherence to the scattershot material. And Peet displays a compelling charisma and physicality throughout, though maybe less so when he's forced to suck his thumb for what seems like hours. But the cast's combined efforts are not enough to make "Daddy," and the ersatz quote marks in its title, more than an exercise in affectation.

Venue: Pershing Square Signature Center, New York
Cast: Carrie Compere, Alan Cumming, Tommy Dorfman, Kahyun Kim, Denise Manning, Hari Nef, Onyie Nwachukwu, Ronald Peet, Charlayne Woodard
Playwright: Jeremy O. Harris
Director: Danya Taylor
Set designer: Matt Saunders
Costume designer: Montana Levi Blanco
Lighting designer: Isabella Byrd
Sound designer: Lee Kinney
Presented by The New Group, Vineyard Theatre