Timeliness is the icing on 'The Cake' at La Jolla Playhouse
Feb. 12--The sign in Della's bakery exclaims, "Cakes for any occasion!," but take that with a heaping teaspoon of salt: While Della truly believes her creations could help bring about world peace, what they occasion in Bekah Brunstetter's "The Cake" is a bitter skirmish in the culture wars.
Brunstetter's funny and open-hearted play, which just opened a smartly acted production at La Jolla Playhouse, hits the sweet spot on a controversy that's very of the moment: The friction between same-sex marriage and religious objections to it.
A case about a cake happens to be in front of the U.S. Supreme Court right now, as the justices decide whether it was legal for a Colorado baker to turn away two men who wanted to place an order for their wedding reception. (A ruling is expected sometime in the next few months.)
In "The Cake," there's no legal entanglement, but in some ways the situation is even more complex: Della (played by the Broadway regular and Tony Award winner Faith Prince) is like family to Jen (Aubrey Dollar), who has returned from Brooklyn to her North Carolina hometown accompanied by her bride-to-be, Macy (Miriam A. Hyman).
Della was a best pal to Jen's late mom, but she also has a special friend in Jesus, and a more mortal force of moral righteousness in her kindly but controlling husband, Tim (Wayne Duvall), who addresses her by the diminutive "Little."
So when Jen (who's still "Jenny" to the local crowd) asks Della to make her wedding cake, you can bet your buttercream there are going to be complications.
Brunstetter, a producer and writer for NBC-TV's hit series "This Is Us" who was last in town at the Old Globe with "Be a Good Little Widow," takes pains to present the debate as part of a larger culture clash -- more red state, less red velvet cake.
Macy, a sharp-tongued journalist, personifies to a fault the perceived attributes (squint and they look like stereotypes) of her hipster urban set: She's down on sugar, doesn't do gluten and generally appears to feel like a visitor from another planet as she visits Jen's town.
The witty Hyman, though, has a skillful way of making Macy much more than a type, and it also becomes clear how Macy's identity as African-American, while not at the forefront of the story, informs her reaction to Southern conservatism.
And at the center of things, Prince is a drawling marvel as Della, whose steadfast commitment to the Word (and sense of fealty to recipes both culinary and spiritual) masks a wrenching inner conflict.
Brunstetter playfully tells part of her story via fantasy interludes in which Della is interrogated by the disembodied voice of a somewhat snippy Brit named George, host of a big-time TV baking show she's scheduled to appear on.
When he quizzes her about her cake decision, Della replies: "The world is gonna change and we cannot. We must follow the directions until we die. Right?" But Della's deep doubts continue to percolate, and Prince lends her struggle a sympathetic heft as the play goes on.
Dollar's peacemaking Jen traces a convincing arc toward standing up for herself and embracing her identity, and she has one particularly affecting scene in which she grapples with her personal legacy of sexual confusion and fear.
The meaning of intimacy also looms large in Della's relationship with Tim, whom Duvall plays as a genial good-old-boy with a glint of vulnerability; some of the show's best laughs (and saddest moments) spring from their struggles to reconnect.
All this unfolds on a set (by David F. Weiner) that looks good enough to eat -- the cozy bakery portion of it, anyway, which comes complete with a case full of beautiful prop cakes.
Elizabeth Harper lights the place with what seems the blaze of a hundred heat lamps, but her designs elsewhere flatter the set, and Denitsa Bliznakova's costumes and Paul James Prendergast's sound and music (including a fetching slide-guitar blues intro) are likewise welcome ingredients.
No play, needless to say, can completely encapsulate a debate as thorny as the one at the center of "The Cake." It's generous of Brunstetter -- who herself was raised in a conservative North Carolina community -- to focus on those like Della who, if they can't get past their religious objections, at least approach the issue with a sense of humanity.
Opposition to gay rights obviously can and does get much uglier than that, a sad fact this particular story just doesn't really engage with.
But if Brunstetter is trying to have her cake and eat it too (because you knew it had to be said), at least "The Cake" offers some small taste of hope.
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Through March 4.
Where: La Jolla Playhouse's Sheila and Hughes Potiker Theatre, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive (Playhouse/UC San Diego Theatre District)
Tickets: About $20-$65
Phone: (858) 550-1010