Della, the North Carolina bake-shop owner at the heart of Bekah Brunstetter’s The Cake, is a good-hearted and just plain good woman trying to bring just a little joy into the world, and a little happiness into her own life, through her chosen medium of lemonade cake. Or she’s a bigot, whose closed-minded, uncritical adherence to religious tenets causes real pain to someone she loves. Really, of course, she can be both of these things at the same time, as can most people. The Cake wants to take us inside her inner conflict, to give us understanding of how hard change is, and how hard Della is trying to grapple with her own moral code–but it doesn’t really seem like the underlying ethical issues trouble her as much as her desire to be nice, to avoid conflict: conflict with her husband, Tim (Dan Daily), conflict with herself, and conflict with a beloved surrogate daughter. Her inner growth, such as it is, over the course of the play ends up mostly revitalizing her own marriage and her own sense of self. She doesn’t change her mind so much as gain willingness, through an encounter with an “other,” to stand up for herself.
The play also often feels like it’s patting comfortably liberal NYC theatergoers on the back for trying to understand the white working class/the Bible Belt/the Trump voter, while wrapping that examination in a sunny comedy that comes awfully close to asserting a moral equivalence, or at least an equal level of absurdity, between believing homosexuality is a sin and not eating cake. (In fact, not eating cake might come off worse in the play’s eyes.)
Della (Debra Jo Rupp, who exudes a warm familiarity and homeyness; you can’t help but like Della in her hands) is about to achieve a dream: she’s been selected as a contestant on a national baking competition, and she leaves in six days. As she practices in her teeth-achingly adorable bakery (John Lee Beatty’s cake-shop set strikes the perfect balance between the zany pop art of a Wayne Thiebaud painting–with, I think, Thiebaud prints decorating the walls–and the ocean of twee to be found in a Laura Ashley catalog), she’s interrupted by a visitor: a stranger from New York, who doesn’t even eat cake and who seems to be taking notes on Della. Macy (Marinda Anderson) is in town planning a wedding, as it turns out–her own wedding to Jen (Genevieve Angelson), whose deceased mother was Della’s best friend. Macy, who is black, Northern, and not so fond of the wedding-industrial complex, would be happier to elope–but she loves Jen, and wants her to be happy.
Jen, a local girl, just wants to get married in her hometown, in front of her family, in the picture-perfect wedding of her childhood–and her late mother’s–dreams, even if those dreams didn’t involve her marrying a woman (or, one suspects, a black person of any gender, though the play isn’t really trying to engage the complex racial dynamics). And, of course, she wants Della to bake the cake. Della refuses; though she camouflages her refusal in an overbooked calendar, everyone involved knows the truth. And when Jen asks Della what her mother might think of her wedding, Della can’t help but give Jen the likely-true, and cruel, answer.
In a way, the script maps a perfect pop psych exercise in how feminism grapples with intersectionality: a middle-aged white Southern Christian learning how to assert herself with her husband but still looking down on the gay couple; a young white Southern lesbian torn in two by her competing identities but loving a black woman, while still feeling somewhat bemused and befuddled by the life they share and fighting her own self-loathing at her sexuality; a black Northern lesbian facing a North Carolina society where she doesn’t fit in at all, but on the other hand, acknowledging that even at home, she’s constantly split by her various identities. But although Della may re-examine her position based on love, she never really questions her beliefs, or understands how her decisions devalue and negate Macy and Jen as much as her husband devalues her. She gets, pardon the pun, to have her cake and eat it too (or, have her cake and make it too, I guess). There are consequences to her actions, but no real sacrifices. And Macy’s tiny hypocrisy–she rejects cake publicly, but secretly sniffs it, desperate to sneak a bite–feels pretty much morally equivalent to, with the same stakes as, Della’s–she publicly condemns Jen and Macy, but privately admits she recognizes and is touched by their love. I found it upsetting to see the two paired, and to see Jen and Macy’s relationship used as a spark to revitalize Della and Tim’s marriage. Della’s principles are taken seriously, while disagreed with; Macy’s are all too frequently played for comedy.
Lynne Meadow’s direction is fairly static and uninspired, but she wisely lets the play’s strongest emotional moments belong to Jen. Angelson gives the character a purity and innocence that should seem naive, but don’t; Jen is genuinely loving and giving, but she carries her scars, too, and the moments where she confesses them–her feelings about heterosexual sex, and her position trapped between the world she grew up in and the world she now inhabits–pack a punch. But Brunstetter doesn’t seem all that invested in Jen, or Macy; the play skips over the six months between their first visit to North Carolina and their wedding, the time in which Jen grappled with the conflict between her loving memories of childhood and the disapproval she feels now at both ends of her life. Macy has the burden of being both the play’s voice of reason and the butt of most of its jokes; her own understanding of irony somehow seems to be used against her.
“There are good people on all sides” is not a model we should be aiming to emulate in these days of rage, bigotry, and poisonous acrimony in the public sphere–and yet, that’s far too close to what we get here. In order to question Della and Tim’s self-righteousness, we also need to poke fun at Macy’s rigidity; in order to question Della and Tim’s certainties, we also need to mock Jen and Macy’s woke lesbian social circle in Brooklyn. The mockery may be gentle, but Macy is the one who comes the closest to admitting she was wrong.
But the stakes on the two sides aren’t equal, and it strikes me as maddeningly disingenuous to posit otherwise for the sake of comedy. Perhaps it is in the end more realistic that people change only in the tiniest increments; that bigotry brings rewards as well as disapproval–Della comes out just fine. But even looking through that realistic lens, the play doesn’t seem to take Macy and Jen seriously; they’re vehicles for Della’s self-knowledge. We don’t get to see Macy and Jen working through the complexity of their relationship; we don’t get to see Jen’s attempts to reconcile her split selves. Instead, we get Macy’s gratitude toward Della, and a winking acknowledgment that cake is pretty great. That final moment aims to send you away with a laugh–and instead it filled me with rage.