The swimming pool that dominates the action in Jeremy O. Harris’s “Daddy”, a world premiere co-production of The New Group and Vineyard Theatre at the Pershing Square Signature Center, seems endlessly expansive and deep as the ocean. Yet when you look a little closer, you realize its depths only sink a few feet beneath the surface level. That could serve as a descriptor for the play itself, which recognizes and occasionally wrestles with important issues but too often lingers on its manicured surface.
And what a surface! Matt Saunders’s scenic design looks like a David Hockney painting come to life—not just that pool with its crystalline water, but the general level of opulence that effortlessly communicates Southern California wealth and comfort. (Harris references Hockney’s “Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures)” in the script’s production notes.) Isabella Byrd’s evocative lighting complements the aura of affluence and access, with its sun-washed days and soft-pale nights, and Montana Levi Blanco’s luxe, trendy costumes run the gamut from ASOS to Gucci. In depicting the scene, Harris shows an intimate knowledge of his well-appointed setting, with not a false note struck.
The play itself—overlong at nearly 3 hours, and occasionally hindered by Danya Taymor’s visually striking but distancing direction—only intermittently matches this level of sharp specificity. Like other probing artists before him, Harris sets out to show the rot beneath the beauty; my mind traveled to the ugly heart that beats below David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, as well as the tortured soul beneath the grand language (and often-attractive surfaces) in the plays of Adrienne Kennedy. These worlds have a special proclivity for violence of the sexual, prejudicial, and spiritual kind; those who care about how things look regularly chop away at anything that disturbs their delicately curated ecosystems.
Harris refracts that through a black, queer, Christian lens, and that adds a needed voice to the conversation. But he doesn’t always push that conversation far enough into the nadir of this uncomfortable world.
When he does key in on something urgent, you feel it right away. “Daddy” charts the unequal partnership between Franklin (Ronald Peet), a young black artist on the precipice of a major career, and Andre (Alan Cumming), a moneyed, middle-aged collector whose interest in acquisitions goes beyond Franklin’s art. Andre can control Franklin through his influence and his wallet; his status as a white Establishment gatekeeper also infuses their relationship with an unspoken menace that demands the audience consider power dynamics across racial and generational lines. When Andre repeatedly calls Franklin “Naomi”—as in Campbell, natch—he tells you all you need to know about his intentions.
The early scenes that show Franklin and Andre establishing a rapport brim with keen observations about the differences in the two men’s worldviews. A conversation around an unnamed work—most likely Kara Walker’s “A Subtlety”—cuttingly communicates the burden that nonwhite artists (and people) bring to representations of their histories in art. Andre bristles at Franklin’s assertion that he “see[s] the work differently than you do”: “Beauty is beauty is beauty,” he responds.
The older man from the majority culture is allowed to experience art without its baggage, whereas the younger black artist cannot, and should not, separate the work from what it conveys. “I’m from the school of aesthetics,” Andre counters. “That’s how I was taught to value work and understand it.” That’s also how many white people are taught they can move through the world.
Harris also gives voice to questions of selective blindness and exploitation through Zora, Franklin’s scripture-quoting mother, who sees the peril in her son’s new relationship. As embodied by the marvelous Charlayne Woodard, she enters the drama as its clear-eyed conscience, the only person not blinded by the artifice that hangs over everything. “So this is how you’re living now?” she interrogates her son on the night of his gallery opening, and the question stabs the air. In the first scene of the second act, Zora lays bare all that’s been unspoken, and Woodard achieves that sometimes with just a look or a tilt of the head. It’s a masterful performance—perhaps the most impressive to date of an undeniably burnished career.
Yet even Woodard can’t fully keep Zora from dipping into two-dimensionality, a state that also befalls Franklin and Andre. The other three characters onstage—two self-centered actor friends of Franklin and a gallery owner—barely achieve dimensionality at all. Their scenes unspool like overlong Saturday Night Live sketches, punchlines dressed up as points to score. Tommy Dorfman, Kahyun Kim, and Hari Nef put their best feet forward, but they cannot overcome the thinness of the writing. They serve a purpose—to make plain the vapidity of the culture—but they receive way more stage time and centrality than they deserve.
As the play progresses, Andre grows too outwardly hateful for his relationship with Franklin to sustain its forward momentum. Harris largely leaves unspoken what holds Franklin in Andre’s thrall, and Cumming plays the part with such mustache-twirling malevolence that it becomes hard to imagine why Franklin stays.
Harris also never settles on a consistent tone for Zora. Is her religiosity a holy-roller act to maintain control over Franklin’s emotional state, or does she sincerely feel herself divinely called to save him? What is her relationship to his homosexuality? (Harris flirts with intolerance but punts.) In the end, how different are Andre and Zora?
We never really get the answer. Instead, the prevailing attitude is one of wealth porn: a participation in material culture dressed as a comment on it. If Harris really does want to rub our nose in the world of status and money and what it lets people get away with, Taymor’s production does a poor job communicating that.
At the performance I attended, the audience squealed in delight when Andre presented Zora with a Birkin bag. The woman sitting behind me stage-whispered her awe (“beautiful!” “gorgeous!” “wow!”) like clockwork. The mood created was one of revelry. Introspection and self-awareness? I couldn’t say.
And did I mention there’s a gospel choir too? Carrie Compere, Denise Manning, and Onyie Kwachukwu sound phenomenal, with tight harmonies and giant voices for days. Harris evokes the gospel superstar Shirley Caesar through their presence, but like so much, it just pulls focus from the actual questions at the center of the show.
Everybody’s in the pool. Is there enough room?