Theater / Film

City Theatre folds humor, conflict and compassion into ‘The Cake’

Written By Christine Dolen
December 9, 2019 at 6:19 PM

America’s culture wars get an illuminating skirmish in “The Cake,” Bekah Brunstetter’s play about a North Carolina woman named Jen, who returns to her hometown from Brooklyn to plan the traditional wedding of her dreams.

In her case, the other figure atop the spectacular cake will be a second bride. And that’s a hurdle that Della, a Christian baker whose best friend was Jen’s late mother, can’t – or won’t – scale.

Initially thrilled when she thinks Jen has a groom waiting in the wings, Della pleads a packed schedule when it becomes clear that Macy, the inquisitive young, black woman who has come into Della’s bakery, is Jen’s intended.

“The Cake” asks of both the baker and the bride: What do you do when someone you love does something you can’t accept?

City Theatre has just opened in the Carnival Studio Theater of Miami’s Arsht Center an insightful, bittersweet, tenderly wrought version of Brunstetter’s much-produced play.

Like the playwright, director Margaret M. Ledford gives weight and respect to the conflicting beliefs and emotions in the script. “The Cake” aims to dig deeper than the us vs. them positions that fuel so much ugliness in discourse. It wants us to listen, to think, to consider different perspectives. And, as an audience, we do.

When first we meet Della (Irene Adjan), she’s in her shop preparing to compete on “The Big American Bake-Off,” a reality TV show modeled on “The Great British Baking Show.”

Michael Gioia’s Tim listens as Irene Adjan’s Della expresses her feelings in Bekah Brunstetter’s “The Cake” at the Arsht Center. (Photo courtesy of Justin Namon)

As she talks about her faith in full-fat baking and following a recipe with scientific precision, a sensuousness sneaks into her often funny commentary. Later, as she imagines the voice of the hot British host of “Bake-Off” (Daniel Llaca) getting way too personal with her, it becomes clear that there’s a lot of sublimation going on in Della’s life. That’s underscored by the lack of passion in her companionable relationship with her plumber hubby Tim (Michael Gioia), who unquestioningly accepts the Bible as the guidebook to living.

But with the arrival of Jen (Lexi Langs) and Macy (Stephon Duncan), Della begins to ponder her settled life and beliefs, and to long for more. Going home again also makes Jen think about the ideas that shaped her, about the push toward the traditional, about the unexpected joy of finding the love she’d always dreamed of with an out-and-proud black lesbian. For her part, Macy is dismayed that the rocky homecoming and Della’s awkward excuse about the wedding cake have amped up Jen’s pre-wedding jitters.

Brunstetter packs a lot, and plenty of frank sexual talk, into a 90-minute play that was inspired in part by what became the Supreme Court case Masterpiece Cakeshop vs. the Colorado Civil Rights Commission, in which a baker refused to make a wedding cake for a gay couple.

In creating her rich characters, the former “This Is Us” writer-producer sometimes resorts to provocative shorthand in defining them. Jen, for example, uses the “c” word with Della as she describes her anguish at being torn between her past and present.

Although Adjan’s Della displays a reflexive narrow-mindedness, the actor infuses her character with warmth and complexity. It would also be easy to view Tim as a traditional Southern guy who views himself as the leader of his two-person family, but Gioia’s aura of fondness for Della and, finally, his playfulness make Tim more than an archetype.

If Langs’ Jen and Duncan’s Macy aren’t an obvious match, that’s more in the writing than in the actors’ performances. Jen is a skittish beauty who has yet to emotionally meld the Southern traditions that shaped her with her hip life in Brooklyn. As Macy, Duncan is adept at conveying both frankness and a simmering pain.

Creatively, costume designer Ellis Tillman has done beautifully expressive and character-underscoring work, outfitting the petite Adjan in cheerful prints and a drop-dead gorgeous emerald green cocktail dress; drawing the contrast between Jen’s traditional look and Macy’s free-spirited one, even in their striking wedding attire; putting Tim in work clothes and PJs.

Irene Adjan as Della (center) takes in the unexpected news of wedding plans between Lexi Langs’ Jen (left) and Stephon Duncan’s Macy. (Photo courtesy of Justin Namon)

Eric Nelson’s lighting helps shift the action on Joe Rawda’s segmented set: from Della’s shop, with its display cases of baked goods; to her homey bedroom; to the bedroom at Jen’s cousin’s house, where she and Macy have just made love; and to the burnished place where Della’s fantasies and worries play out.

That little jingling bell that sounds whenever someone enters through the unseen door to Della’s shop? That’s the work of sound designer Matt Corey.

Can “The Cake” shift entrenched beliefs? Maybe not. But City Theatre’s production accomplishes what the playwright, Ledford, the actors and the creative team intended. Theatergoers think and feel, talk and debate, as love and understanding rise to the top.

What: “The Cake” by Bekah Brunstetter

Where: City Theatre production in the Carnival Studio Theater at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts of Miami-Dade County, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami

When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays, 3 p.m. Sundays, through Dec. 22

Cost: $45, $50

More information: 305-949-6722 or www.arshtcenter.org

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Top photo: Brides Jen (Lexi Langs, left) and Macy (Stephon Duncan) share a tender moment on their wedding day in City Theatre’s “The Cake.”

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