By Jeremy O. Harris; Directed by Danya Taymor
Produced by The New Group and Vineyard Theatre
Off Broadway, Play
Runs through 3.31.19
Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street
by Keith Paul Medelis on 3.5.19
The company of "Daddy." Photo by Matt Saunders.
BOTTOM LINE: Daddy issues are an understatement in Jeremy O. Harris’s newest work, a melodrama with operatic proportions that feels strikingly vacant.
“Because that’s how [my father] understood art: / as a thing / you frame and hang to be seen,” Franklin (Ronald Peet) declares early in Jeremy O. Harris’s “Daddy.” Franklin is getting to know Andre (Alan Cumming), a fancy art collector with fine taste in name-brand artists and unknown boys. His L.A. mansion has a pool, a room of Basquiat paintings, and a convenient makeshift studio for the up-and-coming Franklin. At first they are a fling, then boyfriends (though that's easier for Andre to say), then Andre demands “daddy.” Or is it Franklin who wants to use that title? The stage is a set for a passionate melodrama of daddy issues and our all-too contemporary desire to be seen in an increasingly consumer-driven, social-media-ridden, racist America. But what don’t we see as we seek to be seen?
Waiting to be dealt with throughout the play is Harris’s Chekhov’s gun: a melodic iPhone ring and the subsequent, frequent voicemail greeting that becomes so commonplace, Franklin lip-syncs to his own message ‘round about act three. As Franklin swims deeper in the fantasy, he can’t be bothered to pick up the phone, even when his mother calls to plan her trip to see his show. Zora, Franklin’s mother, is the heartbeat of the play, played by the light that is Charlayne Woodard. She is Harris’s one fully rounded character in a group of characters that don’t always feel real.
When Franklin’s mother eventually does arrive, she is still forced to be absent. Franklin struggles to answer the question of what his relationship to Andre is even after Andre invites her to stay in his mansion despite Franklin’s insistence she shack up in a hotel miles away. The twisted nature of the relationship has only deepened into more established dominance, mind games, and spanking that is more childish than kinky. In a moment of stalking, Zora catches one of these spanking sessions. Interrogation ensues.
All this while an out-of-place Max (Tommy Dorfman) and Bellamy (Kahyun Kim) attempt to be seen in their own right by driving up their followers with poolside photo filters. An eccentric gallery owner Alessia (Hari Nef) is rabid to “discover” the latest, greatest, queer black artist. And a three-piece gospel choir (Carrie Compere, Denise Manning, and Onyie Nwachukwu) trails throughout, unseen, alternately sanging and silently statuesque as they look upon the action in regal church-choir drag.
Harris puts on display the full wallop of melodrama by the third act. The phone still rings. The art show now has larger-than-life puppets. Franklin has descended into full child-like submission. A bacchanalia of an opening night party escalates to chaos as the daddy issues come to a head. Here, Harris lets loose what has been with us, unspoken, all along: the palpable absence of Franklin’s actual daddy. It’s an absence of American proportions known all too well in the queer black world, with its dramatic and increasing loss of father figures. Maybe if Franklin could just answer that call.
Matt Saunders's Instagram-able set features the sleek lines of a modern L.A. home complete with real pool (the front row gets wet), lush artwork, and a palm tree-lined horizon hued with millennial pink from lighting designer Isabella Byrd, who only lets loose with a full palate of color in act three. Montana Levi Blanco’s costumes look expensive, as Project Runway taught me to problematically say. Lee Kinney’s foreboding original score and sound design punctuates the spastic action with driving intensity while also rocking out with some sick tunes before, during, and after.
Where “Daddy” struggles is under Danya Taymor’s direction. Taymor struggles to find the right rhythm for Harris’s melodrama. The play's frequent emotional outbursts, sometimes featuring broken cocktail glasses and solid fight and intimacy choreography from Claire Warden, have an unusual lack of connection. It all feels like someone has a heavy foot on the gas pedal of a stick-shift car. But Harris is at fault here as well. The abuse Franklin suffers at Andre's hands has shimmers of reality that quickly fade into the waters of the ever-present pool. Cumming and Peet are a remarkable pair but Harris’s text leaves reality in favor of metaphor and manages to feel lacking despite the play’s oppressive running time of nearly three hours.
With a play incorporating the disparate gymnastics of a gospel choir, simulated sex and sexual violence in and around a pool, the towering godliness of Alan Cumming, a full-on karaoke rendition of George Michael’s “Father Figure,” and an explosive, glitter-tastic, Last Supper-esque ending, it is a difficult puzzle for Taymor and the company to figure out. They don’t quite succeed.
While Jeremy O. Harris is a remarkable voice of his generation, here, in a play written before this season's Slave Play (which ramped up his celebrity), it feels like he’s not only gotten all the crayons out of the box, but has had a little too much fun marking outside the lines. For an understanding of the forthcoming canon of Harris, “Daddy” is worth seeing. But (especially since all performances are sold out) when we eventually see the work from Harris that I know is to come, you’ll be okay if you miss this one.
(“Daddy” plays at The Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street, through March 31, 2019. The running time is 2 hours and 50 minutes. Performances are Tuesdays through Fridays at 7:30, Saturdays and 2 and 8, and Sundays at 2 and 7:30. Tickets are available through by calling (212) 279-4200 or at newgroup.org and vineyardtheatre.org.)
“Daddy” is by Jeremy O. Harris. Directed by Danya Taymor. Scenic Design by Matt Saunders. Costume Design by Montana Levi Blanco. Lighting Design by Isabella Byrd. Sound Design, Original Score, and Instrumental Arrangements by Lee Kinney. Original Vocal Music and Vocal Arrangements by Darius Smith and Brett Macias. Intimacy and Fight Direction by Claire Warden. Production Stage Manager is Valerie A. Peterson.
The cast is Carrie Compere, Alan Cumming, Tommy Dorfman, Kahyun Kim, Denise Manning, Hari Nef, Onyie Nwachukwu, Ronald Peet, and Charlayne Woodard.