by Brian Scott Lipton
“Follow the directions,” North Carolina bakeshop owner Della (the marvelous Debra Jo Rupp) implores us at the start of The Cake, now receiving its New York debut at Manhattan Theatre Club, Stage I. And while I have no idea what “cookbook” Bekah Brunstetter consulted, there can be no denying this talented writer has found all the right ingredients to create a compassionate comedy and then followed the recipe to a T. But instead of butter and sugar, Brunstetter deftly mixes together a topical subject—gay marriage—with four flawed yet relatable characters over 90 minutes, and the result provides a large helping of laughs with just enough food for thought.
One day, Della, a deeply Christian woman and the epitome of a traditional housewife (albeit one who runs her own business), finds herself suddenly faced with the challenging questions of an opinionated African-American reporter from up north named Macy (the estimable Marinda Anderson). Della’s a little confused about the point of this interview, and so are we – until we discover the story’s not really the thing; Macy is actually the fiancée of Jen (the lovely and touching Genevieve Angelson), the daughter of Della’s late best friend, who has been shopping next door.
To honor her dead mother’s wishes, as well as fulfill her own childhood dreams, Jen has decided to get married in her hometown and wants nothing more than to have Della—who is about to be a contestant on nationally televised baking show – to make the cake for her big day. Sadly, it’s not a request the scripture-quoting Della can initially accommodate, and the play makes us wait until the very end to see if her once-shut mind will open enough to open her oven door for the couple.
Still, Della isn’t the only one who is facing change or proves to be more complex than they first appear. Her plumber husband Tim (a fine Dan Daily) acts as expected, from his instant disapproval of Jen’s sexual orientation to his fear of public affection. But Brunstetter wisely gives him a backstory that explains, in part, why he has treated Bella rather badly over the years. Better still, she serves up a wonderful if totally unexpected scene which let us watch a bit of Tim’s transformation (and trust me, it’s an eyeful).
Meanwhile, returning back home forces Jen to admit that traveling a thousand miles away to live in Brooklyn doesn’t mean she’s forgotten what she left behind; and moreover, she’s not sure in which place she fits in better. And if that revelation angers and confuses Macy – who’s fighting for the right team if not always with the right methods – it ultimately forces her to give in a little (even to her own “vices”) and see a larger picture.
Still, Della is the show’s fulcrum and Rupp makes a three-course meal of this rich character, beautifully employing her trademark earthiness and peerless comic timing. Even her imagined conversations with the baking show’s sharp-tongued chief judge (voiced by Daily)—an unnecessary contrivance—earn guffaws. But Rupp isn’t just playing for laughs. When Della says things that could make us hate her, Rupp does nothing to soft-pedal these statements; yet, we also see the pain these words cause her as well as those who hear it.
Directed with a smooth-as-icing hand by Lynne Meadow and featuring another mouthwatering set by the celebrated John Lee Beatty, “The Cake” proves to be the kind of crowd-pleasing confection that audiences will eat up greedily. Get it while you can.
The Cake. Through March 31 at the Manhattan Theatre Club, Stage I at New York City Center (131 West 55th Street, between Sixth and Seventh Avenues). 90 minutes, no intermission. www.nycitycenter.org
Photos: Joan Marcus