"Daddy" at The Pershing Square Signature Center, Review
The celebrated French stage actress Sarah Bernhardt once said “The theatre is the involuntary reflex of the ideas of the crowd.” Jeremy O. Harris presents the audience for his play Daddy with many ideas to contemplate and reflect on. Ideas about relationships - intergenerational and transactional. Ideas about art and commerce and the inflection points between. Ideas about being black in this country. About queerness, sex and about what S and M might symbolize. It’s a lot to take in and perhaps too much to reflect upon. All of these ideas are both simultaneously outrageous and obvious.
At the center of The New Group and Vineyard Theater’s production of Daddy, directed by Danya Taymor, is Franklin (Ronald Peet), a young black artist who is just starting to get noticed by the art world in Los Angeles. He is also starting a relationship with an older white art collector with questionable taste, Andre (Alan Cumming). Andre wants Franklin’s youth, taste and blackness as he waxes rhapsodic about Franklin’s milky smooth ‘chocolate” long legs and calls him Naomi - a reference to supermodel Naomi Campbell. Franklin wants Andre’s power, wealth and Hockney-like shimmering blue pool, immediately moving into Andre’s palatial Bel Air estate after a night of drugged up passion. He might also be seeking a “father figure’ having been solely raised by his church going, bible quoting mother, Zora (Charlayne Woodard). Lines are drawn and the battle for Franklin’s soul commences.
Daddy begs the question of the worthiness of art. Early on Franklin declares that “art is worthless when it’s owned.” We follow the characters as they try to find what relationships are worth to them, what are they willing to give to get what they think they want. In addition to Franklin, Andre, and Zora, there are Franklin friends Bellamy (Kahyun Kim), a brand obsessed woman who’s in a relationship stage which reflects Franklin’s; and Max (Tommy Dorfman) who covets all that Franklin has and lashes out by judging him for what he thinks is the transactional nature of the relationship with Andre. There’s also a chorus of three women in church robes who comment in song and help Franklin with the labour of his art.
Daddy is an entertaining night at the theater. When Cumming wades into the pool center stage with a mic, followed by the three actresses playing the church chorus in their full robes and starts singing George Michael’s Father Figure, it’s a showstopper. The audience snaps to attention. But it’s not enough for Harris. In the background of this scene, Franklin in contorting in pain. The audience in the first row are deliberately sprayed with water as if they need to be jolted from their slumber. The production is screaming “don’t miss the pain for the beauty?” It echos an earlier conversation between Franklin and Andre about the artist Carol Walker. Andre, as a privileged white man, just sees beauty in her art, while Franklin, as black man in America appreciating another black artist, cannot ignore the history and pain behind it.
There’s a command of pop culture, a knowingness about what gets people talking, that serves the play well and elicits the biggest laughs or snaps as you will. However, it feels hollow afterwards. Have we as an audience been able to take this on, reflect it back and drive the conversation forward as Bernhardt said. Perhaps just having the conversation is enough.
The lead performance by Peet is uneven. He uses his body well but is otherwise a blank state. Part of it is the structure of the play as all the other characters get to talk about him while he mostly stays mum. Cumming has a star’s command of the stage, particularly during the aforementioned “Father Figure” moment. Woodard is incisively funny and can expertly land a joke. She earns the night’s biggest laughs with the way she calls Andre “Metusala.” There’s also a wondrous reaction to a birkin bag that earns another big laugh. However she gets tripped when delivering a loquacious soliloquy in the last act. In fact no one comes out looking good after that act. Whatever the play was trying to say is muddled in heavy symbolism. Every character gets their say, except Franklin who regresses to childhood, yet the audience reflects nothing because it’s all convoluted.
Harris created waves of controversy with his previous work, Stage Play, which also dealt with an interracial relationship and the power dynamics within. These are certainly topics that need to be dealt with in an in your face way as he does here. Daddy is a play that provokes but ultimately feels thin despite its density of ideas.