Tag Archives: Manhattan Theatre Club

The Cake

The Cake is like one of those imperfectly filled jelly donuts: a few sweet spot surrounded by too much bland.  At a time when we could use serious conversation and considered insight into the critical issues that divide us as a nation, this comedy by This Is Us producer Bekah Brunstetter offers too little that is satisfying.  Though it concludes with some timid steps towards a “love is love is love” message, it gets there via worn out arguments on both sides of the issue of gay marriage.

Fans of That 70s Show may delight in seeing Debra Jo Rupp as Della, the owner of a sweet shop in Winston-Salem North Carolina (Brunstetter’s home town) about to find fame on a national baking show.  Her opening monologue cleverly lays the groundwork for the rigid discipline Della applies to all areas of her life.  Soon after, she is reunited with Jen, her deceased best friend’s daughter, who is in town preparing for her October wedding.  Initially Della is thrilled when asked to provide the wedding cake.  But when she discovers Jen’s intended is another bride, she clumsily rescinds the offer.  Their ensuing awkward discussion leaves both Della and Jen rattled and searching for the roots of their beliefs and accompanying feelings of shame.

Director Lynne Meadows does her best with a space that is too wide for a story this intimate.  Rupp is her usual perky self, delivering most of the better lines with comic flair.  To some ears, Della will simply come across as a bigot (though a chirpy petite one) who uses someone else’s pleasure and pain to mend her own relationship.  But there are moments when Della’s turmoil feels genuine.  Rupp is most grounded in her scenes with Dan Daily, who has the most joyful character arc in the role of her domineering husband, Tim.  (Daily also provides the voice of the appropriately oily George, the host of the American Baking Show who functions as Della’s conscience.) 

Rupp and Angelson in The Cake. Photo by Joan Marcus

Rupp and Angelson in The Cake. Photo by Joan Marcus.

The relationship of the lesbian couple is more problematic. Disappointingly, though the words are often there — particularly in Jen’s vivid and horrifying description of her heterosexual encounters — there is no palpable connection between the two actresses. The fresh-faced Genevieve Angelson brings a sweet restlessness to Jen as she is tossed between the realms of her conservative childhood and newly found freedom discovered in New York.  As her betrothed, Marinda Anderson gives Macy some well-earned rough edges, though the script occasionally requires her to speechify.  But as a couple, they never seem to click.

The overall look of the piece is spot-on.  Scenic designer John Lee Beatty has chosen candy colors to surround his baker, with mint green and strawberry cream pink swirling through her shop and home.  In contrast, the engaged couple is staying in the only earth toned room on the set.  Wardrobe by costume designer Tom Broecker follows a similar scheme, with Jen alternating palates.  Philip S. Rosenberg’s ’s lighting sharpens the intensity of Della’s inner dialogue and softens the conversations between lovers.  

With The Cake, Ms. Brunstetter has tried to make the point that recent cultural shifts have occurred too quickly for some goodhearted people to catch up.  The irony is that since the time the play was first produced, those same shifts have given rise to a slate of superior projects with bolder things to say.  From our current cultural vantage point, this work is a disappointing use of Rupp’s comedic talent as well as a waste of several delectable-looking cakes.  

The Cake is playing through March 31 at MTC at New York City Center – Stage I.  Theater-goers under 30 qualify for special $35 tickets.  Full priced tickets begin at $89 and can be purchased online at www.nycitycenter.org, by calling CityTix at 212-581-1212, or by visiting the New York City Center box office (131 West 55th Street).  

Heisenberg

HeisenbergMTCFriedman TheatreIf the name “Heisenberg” has frightened you into thinking this is a dense play about quantum mechanics, never fear.  It is, rather, about the most everyday of occurrences: two dissimilar people getting to know each other and determining the substance of their relationship.  Like protons, can they come together to form something bigger and more powerful?  And if they do, what is the potential for that configuration to change?

The series of somewhat commonplace conversations about life, work, and love is made compelling by two gifted actors: Denis Arndt as Alex and Mary-Louise Parker as Georgie.  The disparity in their ages is the least significant of their differences.  I had heard about their incredible chemistry, but that’s not the word I would use to describe their bond.  What flashes between them struck me as more skillful than emotional, like trapeze artists who know exactly when to extend their arms even when there is no music.  There is much communicated in a simple smile or touch.  But it is absorbing artistry, not as impassioned as I expected.

The slow-burn of personal revelations is pepped up with flashes of humor and provocative uncertainty.  Simon Stephens, who so brilliantly adapted The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, has here provided a simple dialogue with a intriguing angle.  We learn fairly early on that Georgie can tell a convincing and detailed lie.  That makes everything she says and does suspect, even when she’s admitting to lying.  It’s a tribute to the characters’ development — their ultimate sweetness and vulnerability —  that I found myself wondering for days whether the key turning points of their journey together stemmed from genuine crisis or Georgie’s well-constructed (possibly dubiously motivated) flights of fancy.

Heisenberg was commissioned by Manhattan Theatre Club and played off-Broadway last summer at City Center. Within its new Broadway home, director Mark Brokaw has recreated the proper space for his intimate yet significant production, greatly reducing the size of the stage by placing 200 members of the audience in seats on the stage.  The feeling is more of a small town sports arena than a professional New York theater, which is no doubt intentional.  With limited room to move, the two actors can’t help but confront each other at every turn. in action as well as in word.  Outlines of locations from a train station to a butcher shop to a hotel room are defined by scenic designer Mark Wendland using folding tables and chairs. Scenic beats are created with Austin R. Smith’s lighting and David van Tieghem’s sound.

Three of the closest people in my life I met randomly through uncharacteristic circumstances.  So it is not a surprise that the underpinnings of Heisenberg resonated with me.  If you, too, know that experience of a chance encounter that alters your life or you simply enjoy seeing potential unfold between strangers, then you will find Heisenberg an engrossing way to spend 80 minutes.  It is playing through December 11, 2016 at the Samuel  J. Friedman Theater.  For tickets and information visit http://heisenbergbroadway.com.