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THEATRE REVIEW: Manhattan Theatre Club’s ‘The Cake’ proposes that sugar makes moral medicine go down

“The Cake” isn’t bold or provocative; it’s considered and gentle in confronting political and cultural divisions.

The Cake
By Bekah Brunstetter
Directed by Lynne Meadow

Debra Jo Rupp, Genevieve Angelson and Marinda Anderson in the Manhattan Theatre Club production of ‘The Cake.’ Photo: Joan Marcus

“The Cake” is like a centrist candidate for president: It accommodates everybody’s point of view so nobody gets offended. Tidily composed by Bekah Brunstetter and straightforwardly directed by Lynne Meadow, the premise of “The Cake” is ripped from today’s headlines. North Carolina-born and -bred, middle-aged baker Della, who believes in the Lord, gets all conflicted about baking a wedding cake for her deceased best friend’s daughter Jen, visiting from hipster Brooklyn, when she discovers the little girl she’s known since birth is a lesbian getting married to a woman. Jen’s conflicted, too, because she feels a loyal tug to her mother’s memory (what would she say if she knew I turned out gay?) and her Christian, Southern roots. These middle-of-the-roaders get flanked right and left by Della’s blue-collar, Trump-voting husband, Tim, and Jen’s Black fiancée, Macy, a take-no-prisoners activist who grew up in an intellectual, leftist household in Philadelphia.

Dan Daily and Debra Jo Rupp in the Manhattan Theatre Club production of ‘The Cake.’ Photo: Joan Marcus

Brunstetter peppers the script with jokes about old-fashioned butter-and-sugar baking: Della quips, “gluten-free tastes like the back of my mouth after a bad cry.” The North Carolina-born Brunstetter cleverly breaks up the linear narrative and heightens Della’s moral dilemma with fantasy sequences of her performance-baking for an offstage, wrath-of-God-voiced emcee of a Great American Baking Show on cable and on which she’s scheduled to compete. Brunstetter moves Della along—“my brain and heart are at war”—to a crisis of values, in which she questions her big life choices in the best scene in the play, in confrontation with husband Tim—“You forget that I went to college, but I did.” (Later in the play, though, Brunstetter misfires badly with Tim’s ridiculous, cringe-worthy try to make nice in the bedroom.)

As Della, Debra Jo Rupp, who originated the role in Los Angeles and played it to audience acclaim at Barrington Stage Company in the Berkshires last summer, is unilaterally in control. All the elements of her performance—movement, timing and accent—are set like concrete. Brunstetter fleshes out the other characters well enough so the actors are working with something besides their cultural type. Still, I wondered what it was like for the cast to keep up with Rupp.

The ending, like any successful politician, sort of gets it both ways. “The Cake” isn’t bold or provocative; it’s considered and gentle in confronting political and cultural divisions. While this pleasant, olive-branch approach lacks dramatic sting, at least it’s in blessed relief to likes of the musical “The Prom,” in which everybody who doesn’t hate Trump is depicted as a stupid slob. “The Cake” believes that sugar makes moral medicine go down—and in carefully measured spoonfuls at that.

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