by Sandi Durell
The co-production of Vineyard Theatre and The New Group’s ‘Daddy’ at The Pershing Square Signature Center (The Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre) is a searing revelatory peek into the world of dominance, control, human behavior, emotional fragility, religion and art. That, in and of itself, is a tall order in this edgy production.
Written by Jeremy O. Harris – still at Yale – and writer of the recent well received Slave Play at NYTW, this provocative new playwright is boundless in his exploration – from race, religion, gender and the human condition, Daddy follows the path adding a surrealistic approach that helps provide the needed comic relief in this very real and intimate setting in what Harris calls a melodrama.
Meet very rich, white and affected art collector Andre (a very intense and remarkable Alan Cumming) in his lavish Bel Air mansion, filled with important art (Basquiat, Twombly) and, of course, an infinity pool and glass enclosed sliding door room (the beautiful elaborate creation designed by Matt Saunders). Andre is lavishing his unbridled attention and affection on Franklin, a recent pickup, looking oh so sexy in his Speedo swimsuit – he’s black, (sweet, good looker Ronald Peet), who’s swept away in his artistic endeavors and the world of art, and with Andre, now more so with the possibility that a showing of his work will be arranged at a prominent gallery by Andre. Their opening scene, both high on drugs, is very touchy, feely as Franklin expounds and comments on the variety of major artists Andre possesses and blabbers, without restraint, after a swim, while Andre is drying himself off. Be forewarned that if you’re sitting in the first couple of rows – – splashy splashy!
Franklin, possessing the soul of a true artist, unabashedly tells Andre that art loses its worth the minute it is bought . . . it becomes worthless once it’s owned. No matter to Andre who is obsessed with accumulating more things and, in this particular case, it’s Franklin – his passion knowing no bounds. As George Michael’s 1988 “Father Figure” begins playing in the background, next we hear a gospel choir singing somewhere. Yes, there is singing and music; a Greek chorus of sooth-sayers to punctuate the goings on.
Lounging around the pool gossiping are two typical Hollywood wannabes – – Franklin’s best friend actor type Max, who is gay, (really adorable Tommy Dorfman) and mindless Bellamy (Kahyun Kim) consumed with taking selfies and telling endless tales about her latest lover. I would say there’s more than a little bit of jealousy, especially coming from Max. The two friends have now become permanent fixtures in Andre’s house, eating his food, drinking his champagne, using his drugs and living the good life in extremis, while questioning Franklin about his sexual relationship with Andre.
As things move along, sex, nudity and control become the prevalent ongoing themes as Franklin and Andre cavort in and out of the pool, in Speedos but mostly naked, Andre demanding sex of Franklin who says this is all new to him and that things are moving too fast. But Andre (whom Franklin is now calling ‘Daddy’ and vice versa Andre calling him ‘son’) will have none of it as he says he’ll teach Franklin everything he needs to know, and more. It’s immediately obvious that Franklin reacts like a frightened little boy, allowing Daddy to take control of the relationship. with a great sense of discomfort . . . a lot of thumb-sucking results from the now crumbling, sad to see, mental state of Franklin whose real daddy disappeared when he was only a child.
The choir takes on new meaning as Franklin’s forgotten heart and soul, focusing intensely when Mom comes up for Franklin’s debut art show of his small hand-sewn black baby dolls, telling her boy that when she was young, those dolls were called “Coon Babies.” We meet the ever truthful Zora (an outstanding Charlayne Woodard), a God fearing, ultra religious southern woman, standing fully clothed in the pool talking about her husband, Franklin’s father, who left them long ago giving insight into the backstory of Franklin’s emotional demise. Mom doesn’t mince words with Andre and desperately tries to save her son from the hellish nightmare she sees unfolding . . . Franklin’s descent into Hades via Daddy! She pleads and cajoles trying to talk sense into her son; the son who used to be a God-fearing Church-going southerner like his Mom, and has now been led astray by the Devil himself! Her ‘exorcism’ of evil is a triumphant monologue of soulfulness and truth, filled with quotations from the Bible.
It is the unraveling emotional wreckage that Franklin has become in his quest for fame and fortune at the hands of Andre, that leaves the audience with an eerie sense of discomfort – a modern day tale of selling your soul to the Devil!!
The added realism of Hari Nef as Alessia, the gallery director, is electrifying. Her outspoken commentary adds a surprise whenever she’s on stage albeit nothing revolutionary. It’s just her delivery that raises an eyebrow. Symbolism, in the form of giant puppets, is artful and creative thanks to Tschabalala Self. And let us not forget the ever-vigilant Gospel Choir – Carrie Compere, Denise Manning, Onyie Nwachukwu adding their voices in song.
Lighting by Isabella Byrd, with sound design by Lee Kinney add a sense of foreboding, aided by Darius Smith and Lee Kinney’s original music and arrangements.
In the sensitive, skillful and loving hands of director Danya Taymor, the production and performances are impressively real and jolting much of the time.
If you’re uncomfortable with full frontal nudity and language, think twice.
Photos: Matt Saunders & Monique Carboni
Daddy continues at The Pershing Square Signature Center 480 West 42 Street thru March 31. www.TheNewGroup.org
2 hours, 45 minutes with two intermissions.