Written by Jeremy O. Harris
Directed by Danya Taymor
As the lights come up on the Matt Saunders’s opulent set, the sinewy, shimmering figure that rises from the moonlit swimming pool looks, for all the world, like a renaissance statue come to life. The resemblance is hardly coincidental. The beautiful body belongs to aspiring Franklin (Ronald Peet). The pool belongs to Andre (Alan Cumming), an independently wealthy art collector. The two have just met, and though Franklin feels a strong attraction to Andre, he worries that the middle-aged aesthete may see him as just another possession, like the Twomblys and Basquiats that adorn his fancy manse in the Hollywood Hills. More troublingly, Andre demands to be called “master” during their dominant-submissive sex games. Has Franklin just been purchased by a wealthy white landowner?
Certainly, Franklin’s friends Max (Tommy Dorfman) and Bellamy (Kahyun Kim), voice a high degree of skepticism about Franklin’s new “daddy”. But they’re not above sipping Andre’s champagne,basking by his pool, or using his Seamless account to order sushi. Though troubled by Max’s comments, Franklin stays with Andre, and the question of who’s taking advantage of who gets a bit more ambiguous. Franklin, has, in effect found a patron, and at last has time and space to work a series of soft sculptures featuring black male doll-bodies in various costumes and social roles. In today’s context-hungry art world, the figures turn out to be catnip to Andre’s collector cronies. Ebullient gallery owner Alessia (Hari Nef) is over the moon, but Franklin’s Bible-thumping mother Zora (Charlayne Woodard) isn’t sold. She seems okay with her son being gay, but frequently clashes with Andre and sees nothing in Franklin’s art other than a crafty method of separating pretentious white people from their money. Conspicuously absent from all of this is Franklin’s real father, and therein lies the inner torment that both fuels the young artist’s creative process and threatens to push him towards a psychotic break. In the play’s surreal third act, Franklin finds his mind awash with nightmarish thoughts and images that will never cease until he finds some way to confront his painful past.
At heart DADDY is actually a solidly-crafted, traditional play. It takes place largely on a single set, with logic-based entrances and exits, clear dramatic stakes and exposition revealed through dialogue. Max and Bellamy function as a kind of Greek chorus, while Zora provides the catalyst that prompts the hero’s catharsis. But playwright Jeremy O. Harris isn’t content to let the story unfold organically. The evening sports plenty of spectacle, including startling lighting and sound effects and appearances by a gospel choir (Carrie Comprere, Denise Manning and Onyie Nwachukwu), which at one point accompanies Cumming in a rendition of George Michael’s R&B hit “Father Figure”. They sound great, of course, but, as with many of the show’s embellishment accoutrements, the song only serves reiterate what we’ve already seen. Either these non-naturalistic elements need to be put to more effective use or, better yet, Harris should trust that his skillful, potent dialogue and topnotch cast are strong enough to deliver the desired emotional punch. Likewise, director Danya Taymor seems to be struggling to arrive at a style. Rather than have the actors move with purpose, she often directs them to pace and pirouette about the stage between lines. Like Harris, she needs reminding that less is more.
DADDY continues through March 31, 2019 at the Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street, New York, NY 10036. Tickets at ticket-central.com