Of all the tried-and-true dramatic formulas, the love story ranks close to the top.
“Daddy,” a new play by Jeremy O. Harris in a co-production by the New Group and the Vineyard Theatre, takes a fresh look and boosts the consequences with tangents on wealth, race, art, faith, and a lot more.
The production is sumptuous and bold. Isabella Byrd’s lighting caresses Matt Saunders’ Bel Air home, so that the ivory facades and glass passageways glow in a full range of color. And, just like in a true California evening, the light reflected off the swimming pool shimmers in waves along the walls.
Yes, there is a real, functioning swimming pool, with turquoise tile and room for the entire nine-member cast. It gets a real workout. Clothing is optional here, but all the characters march in and out of the water at least once, fully clothed. Not to worry.
Plenty of towels on hand, as collector-host Andre — played by a diligent and charming Alan Cumming — is a generous sort, welcoming his young artist protégé boyfriend Franklin (an intense Ronald Peet) to share the poolside with his two pals, the boisterous Max (Tommy Dorfman) and the ditzy Bellamy (Kahyun Kim).
These hangers-on serve as chatty observers of the struggles which seem to paralyze Franklin as he readies for his first big art show.
Three gospel ladies (Carrie Compere, Denise Manning and Onyie Nwachukwu) exist on a different plane. They hover like watchful muses, pipe up beautifully for some rousing intervals of song, but otherwise loom silently, as grave counterpoint to the increasingly erratic Franklin.
He has good reason to fret. There is the art show, the demanding and lavish Andre, and the arrival of his mother, Zora (a commanding Charlayne Woodard). We can easily see why Zora might be concerned about her son, and not just because of some unanswered phone calls. He is in an interracial romance with an older, wealthy man.
But Zora’s misgivings turn out to be unpredictable. Likewise, Franklin’s attraction to Andre transcends easy categorization.
Playwright Harris presents his hero’s response to escalating pressure as a kind of withering experience, one which provokes an internal turmoil reflected in his work.
This is vividly shown, and provides some of the play’s most effective imagery. It is personal, but unspoken and abstract, and serves the story well.
Meanwhile, the monologues are windy shotgun blasts, and resolution and insight fade away. Director Danya Taymor accommodates the author to dead-end extremes. The ring of a cell phone, a repeated attempt at landing on some presumed target, hammers at our patience.
The cadence of Franklin’s fraught love affair is burdened by a leaden party scene and Franklin’s own descent into wearying infantile yearnings.
The play clocks in at almost three hours, and for some audience members, the production’s nudity and graphic sexual content may provoke an uphill struggle.
“Daddy” enigmatically calls itself a “melodrama,” a form which traditionally resolves itself with a revelation or a heroic rescue. Not so here. The mechanics of the play support an effort worthy of the accusations of the idealistic hero.
Here, you get an enticing pool of water, just like a mirage.