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Lyric Stage Company Offers Up Underbaked 'The Cake'

by James Wilkinson
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Wednesday Jan 15, 2020
Karen MacDonald in "The Cake" at the Lyric Stage through February 9
Karen MacDonald in "The Cake" at the Lyric Stage through February 9  (Source:Lyric Stage)

What do you think? Should she have just baked the cake? I'm going to go ahead and make a bet that most people who see "The Cake" will be aware of, if not the exact plot, at least the show's hook prior to entering the theater. I think that it's part of the appeal that the play by Bekah Brunstetter, now in production at Lyric Stage Company, has for audiences. A bakery run by a conservative Christian refuses to make a cake for a lesbian wedding. As more and more of these kinds of stories pop up in the news and on our Facebook newsfeeds, (a fact both depressing and terrifying), it sounds like we're charging our way into a ripped-from-the-headlines narrative featuring characters bravely fighting against injustice.

Ah, but wait! Our primary, point-of-view character is not either of the women getting married, but the baker who declines to make the cake. It's (primarily) her story that we get, drawing a picture of a complete and complex human being rather than the caricature many of us might associate with such a story (Kim Davis, I'm looking at you...).

In theory, I'm in favor of this play's ambitions, (though, let me be upfront and say that every fiber of my being and who I am has me yelling that yes, she should just make the cake). Arts organizations aren't quite the leftist propaganda machines that some right-wingers make them out to be, but it is true that people working in the arts generally tend to lean more towards a liberal point of view.

And, like with any homogenous collection of people, this can lead to the creation of a thought bubble that other points of view have difficulty penetrating. I think that a play that centers on a conservative character and takes their views seriously, one that could run at theaters in the more conservative areas of the country, open up dialogues on queer issues and maybe change minds, has the potential to be really exciting. "The Cake" wants to be that play. It tries so hard to be that play and to give all of its characters the space to have their say. It's so stuffed with good intentions from every angle that I already feel like a heel for coming down on it. Nevertheless, I'm pushing on because while the Lyric's production manages to come up with a handful of moments with punch, I don't think that the center holds. There's something a bit conceptually wonky here hidden beneath the surface.

Kris Sidberry and Chelsea Diehl in "The Cake"  (Source:Lyric Stage)

Della (Karen MacDonald), is the North Carolina baker we're following, owner of "Della's Sweets." Several weeks before Della is scheduled to appear on an American version of "The Great British Bakeoff," she gets a visit from Jen, (Chelsea Diehl), the daughter of her best friend. Jen moved to New York for college and hasn't been back much since her mother's death a few years ago. She's returned this time because she's getting married to her girlfriend Macy, (Kris Sidberry). She wants to have the ceremony in her home town and she wants Della to make the cake.

Still a bit flustered from learning the Macy isn't a bridesmaid, but the other bride, Della quickly throws out the excuse that she's already booked for the month of the wedding. The happy couple seems to take it in stride, but the action unleashes a fair amount of turmoil in each of them. Della genuinely struggles with whether or not she's made the right decision. Macy can't understand why Jen is so dead set on maintaining an attachment to a community that wants no part of her. Jen is stuck trying to defend the place she's come from and reconcile it with who she is now.

There's a certain amount of manipulation going on here. The play doesn't waste any time racking up the goodwill in Della's favor. The opening scene has Macy in the bakery, (we don't know who Jen is yet, so she's just a customer), chatting with Della. Della talks about the Noah's Ark cake she's made for a christening and Macy asks how she feels about the studies saying sugar is more addictive than cocaine. Della talks about her upcoming appearance on the baking show and Macy mentions that she heard those shows were rigged. Della offers Macy a slice of cake to which Macy refuses, saying that her diet requires her cake to be gluten-free. (By this point Macy has grown so insufferable in that distinct hipster NYC-way that I had to restrain from screaming at the stage "Jesus Christ lady, just eat the cake!").

I understand why Brunstetter is doing this, she's trying to ensure that we like Della before she brings down the hammer of a decision that she knows the audience will dislike her for. But I think it comes at the cost of a more complex portrait. As written and the way that Karen MacDonald plays her, the character is superhumanly endearing. I can't picture this woman ever having a negative thought in her life. Even when she tells Jen she won't bake the wedding cake, she doesn't go so far as to come right out and refuse, she just mutters off some excuses about how she's too busy. With all of that sugar surrounding the character, a stiffness settles in that the production has a hard time shaking off.

Of the four actors, (Fred Sullivan Jr. rounds out the cast as Della's husband Tim), I actually think Kris Sidberry as Macy comes out the best. Given that the character is the outsider in this community, Sidberry has to spend much of the play biting her tongue as Macy navigates this North Carolina town as a queer black woman. But late in the play, she has a moment when she finally unleashes and Sidberry doesn't hold back. "Why do you hate me so much?" She roars at Della. "Why? Why? Why?" Sidberry manages to make the moment feel like a culmination. It's not about the cake, it's about a lifetime of the shame of being made an outsider. Likewise, Chelsea Diehl manages to really sell a moment between Jen and Della where she reveals how she knew she was gay and how wrong she felt until that realization. Karen MacDonald plays the good sport and throws herself into her role as Della, but again, I wish the part gave her more to do. The character really has two modes, conflicted and endearing. The play throws in a parallel plotline about her relationship with her husband that I think was meant to flesh out the character a bit more, but it just seems to scrape up against the main story.

Director Courtney O'Connor manages to keep the play moving pleasantly enough, but I think there are still moments in the narrative that stick out for being incongruous or underdeveloped. Take an early scene where Della's conflicted feelings begin to surface. She tells her husband that he should have seen the loving way Jen and Macy looked at each other earlier that day, but that wasn't an element of the scene we just finished watching. In that scene, once Della realizes the nature of Jen and Macy's relationship, the tone is one of awkwardness and the women leave soon after. There wasn't time for a loving look, at least not one that lands so that the audience can feel it. Late in the show, Diehl and Sidberry get a great scene where Jen confesses a certain amount of internalized shame around being gay because of her upbringing and it drives a wedge between the couple. This idea has some rich thematic potential to it, but the resolution of this conversation happens offstage. I don't need all of my plotlines tied up in a neat bow, but how do the characters get to the ending they do without resolving this at least a little bit?

I maintain that I am in favor of a play that puts a conservative character at the center to properly interrogate their views. But I have to wonder if that's really what "The Cake" does. When the question is put to Della why she's against gay marriage, all she can really throw back is a half a line about what the Bible says. Shouldn't there be a bit more to it than that? Can't she be worried about the children? The institution of marriage? The downfall of western civilization? I mean, they'd all be bullshit reasons, but it would show that she's thought through and rationalized her worldview. I'm finding it somewhat perverse that I'm arguing for a character to have a stronger argument against gay marriage, but I think the play remains toothless without it. It skims along the top of the issues while creating a straw dog for a liberal audience to chuckle at warmly but not really engage with. How exactly does that help anyone?

"The Cake" is presented by and at Lyric Stage Company January 10-February 9, 2020. For tickets and more info, visit the Lyric Stage's website.

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