Blackout. Operatic music. Lights up on Franklin (Ronald Peet), a physically beautiful, young, black man exiting a swimming pool in Speedos. Got your attention? We’re on the back patio of a David Hockey-like, glass-walled, Bel Air house so sprawling its owner keeps forgetting the location of his kitchen. Outside are tasteful chaises, giant plants. Inside we see two contemporary paintings, one of which might be Motherwell or Franz Kline, the other Cy Twombly.
The manse’s inhabitant is Andre (Alan Cumming), an extremely wealthy, older art collector who wears entitlement as lightly as over-the-shoulder, four-ply cashmere. “Did anyone ever tell you, you have legs like Naomi Campbell?” he asks, running his mouth down Franklin’s legs as if edible, already over the moon about his latest pick-up.
Hari Nef and Ronald Peet (Photo by Monique Carboni)
The young man is a soft sculpture artist on the verge of a first show. Gallerist Alessia (Hari Nef – credibly flamboyant) believes in the naïve, stuffed, negro dolls Franklin’s mother later calls “coon babies.” Clearly educated/cultured, he swoons over Andre’s collection, yet without social boundaries, comments “…the house screams nouveau riche. You have a shitload of money, but no education or taste,” then, hearing himself, recoils.
Instead of putting his host off, this endears Franklin to Andre who’s accustomed to constant, gushing affirmation. The collector declares himself. They f*** in the pool. Lo and behold, though in his twenties, it’s Franklin’s first time. He moves in.
We now meet his two best friends, Bellamy (Kahyun Kim, irresistibly Valley Girl appalling) and Max (Tommy Dorfman), both unabashedly mercenary and jealous of their friend’s Sugar Daddy. Bellamy’s dialogue is spot on.
Alan Cumming, Kahyun Kim, Tommy Dorfman (Photo by Monique Carboni)
“Daddy,” however means much more to this play than being kept. When Andre is sexually demanding, Franklin reflexively calls him “daddy” regressing to the helpless persona of a child. It sticks. The young man is a natural dependent. Apparent mental instability, of which we see the mere quaking tip, began with his father’s abandonment.
Things might have gone on for years, for life, were it not for the arrival of Franklin’s mama, Zora (Charlayne Woodard). The fire-and-brimstone-preaching woman becomes a formidable combatant for what she perceives as her son’s soul.
Besides the swimming pool, where clothed or not everyone intermittently lands, the piece features full frontal nudity, simulated sex, music, singing, dancing, and some swell giant dolls, all of which effectively keep it from becoming grisly. Unfortunately, the playwright loses his way in Act III, piling on speeches filled with information we already have. He also becomes obscure, ultimately diminishing impact.
Kahyun Kim, Charlayne Woodard, Alan Cumming, Tommy Dorfman (Photo by Matt Saunders)
Alan Cumming’s beautifully calibrated, intriguingly low key portrayal is besotted, possessive, and entitled. We believe Andre adores Franklin and that deferential treatment of his lover’s mom is sincere, despite opposing agendas. Cumming’s character is graceful even without clothes, convincingly dominant, and he sings!
Ronald Peet seems to lose focus and increasingly depend on technique as the long, long play progresses. On the one hand, watching anxiety, fear, surprise, and pleasure pass across his face is a treat. On the other, we get no sense of what’s going on inside during the character’s “spells.” Peet also spends too much time looking vapid with a thumb in his mouth.
The superb Charlayne Woodard creates a passionate Bible-thumper purportedly protecting her son. Fusillades of speech practically draw blood. She’s visibly calculating,chillingly smooth.
Capable Gospel Choir: Carrie Compere, Denise Manning, Onyie Nwachukwu.
Front – Alan-Cumming, Ronald-Peet, Charlayne-Woodard; Back – Onyie-Nwachukwu, Denise-Manning, Carrie-Compere (Photo by Matt Saunders)
Director Dana Taymor shows skill with both characterization and use of staging area, the latter often filled with people – meticulously fluid and aesthetically set. Giant dolls (Franklin’s art) are deftly handled. Timing is adroit.
Matt Saunder’s Set is splendid; the large (big enough in which to flat dive), seemingly mosaic pool an inspiration, use of a balcony deft. Sightlines inside and out of the house are particularly well considered. (The first row should be provided with a plastic splash sheet, people splash.)
With Isabella Byrd’s evocative lighting, Original Score/Instrumental Arrangements by Lee Kinney, and Original Vocal Music/Vocal Arrangements by Darius Smith/Brett Micias, the Production itself is muscular. Add Montana Levi Blanco’s idiosyncratic Costumes, and all six senses are intrigued.
Special call-outs are due Claire Warden for Intimacy and Fight Direction which are not just vivid but sizzle and to Tschabalala Self, whose Doll Designs are marvelous.
Opening: Ronald Peet- Photo by Matt Saunders
The New Group and The Vineyard Theatre present
“Daddy”- A Melodrama by Jeremy O. Harris
Directed by Dayya Taymor
The Pershing Square Signature Center
480 West 42nd Street
Through March 31, 2019