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Off Broadway Review: ‘Daddy’ Starring Alan Cumming

Lionized for “Slave Play,” playwright Jeremy O. Harris tries for a deuce with this self-described “melodrama” about artistic and personal obsession.

Daddy review play
Matt Saunders

Possible spoiler:  The kid ain’t worth it!

Some breathtaking design work has gone into the sleek production of Jeremy O. Harris’ “Daddy,” directed by Danya Taymor (“Pass Over”), who’s done stage work for Steppenwolf, Lincoln Center, and the Goodman. Set designer Matt Saunders contributes a sleek visual lookalike of David Hockney’s 1971 “Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures)” complete with a fully functioning lap pool for the enjoyment of the multiple (frequently naked) figures who make use of it. The interior of this Bel Air mansion is suggested by a horizontal corridor that leads to many unseen rooms offstage. Lighting designer Isabella Byrd has washed the entire scene in luscious shades of sun-washed blue.

Oh, yeah, there’s some first-class acting in this show as well. Alan Cumming is flawlessly creepy as Andre, a moneyed art collector of uncertain European origin who has succeeded in collecting a young African-American artist named Franklin, played by Ronald Peet. George Michael’s “Father Figure” is the perfect theme song for this play.

Welcome to the self-love fantasy of rising playwright Harris, who has scripted a three-hour homage to his own artistry. With Peet rather modestly standing in for The Artist as Genius and Love Object, the young painter spouts a lot of art-speak (“The pieces in that room are in conversations with each other”) while mocking the silly rich ladies who are funding his career.

Despite some de rigueur blandishments aimed at his besotted sugar daddy, Franklin is really hot for his Daddy’s artistic acquisitions — Twombly in the long hall, Calder in the front hallway, Lichtenstein in the foyer and more goodies hung throughout the house.  Andre knows the score and clearly doesn’t give a hoot, not so long as he can lick Franklin’s naked leg and declare it to be as shapely as Naomi Campbell’s.

Taken in the high spirits indicated at the top of the show, it’s quite fun hearing Franklin squeal over the roomful of Basquiats in the bedroom. “Don’t get me wrong, it’s like, cool, like, amazing, or whatever.  But it’s like yeah, you have money, but curatorially, the taste is, like, booty.”  He even makes a shrewd point about overwhelming Basquiat with more Basquiat.

Give the writer his due, the dialogue is, like, dope. Also, a reflection of all the drugs that Andre and Franklin have been doing. This light chit-chat also holds up when Franklin’s young friends come to hang out and swim in that inviting pool. His bestest friend, Max (Tommy Dorfman), is funny and cute, as is Franklin’s other best friend, Bellamy (Kahyun Kim), both of whom benefit from some smart use of costumes (by Montana Levi Blanco) and props. (Love, love, love Bellamy’s giant sun hat.)

But hang in there for the real va-va-voom visitor, Franklin’s Mama Zora, played to the heavens by Charlayne Woodard, who is so divine she brings a small gospel choir (Carrie Compere, Denise Manning, Onyie Nwachukwu, bless them) with her. The original vocal music and arrangements are by Darius Smith and Brett Macias and sound just like secular gospel should sound. With Zora on the scene, Mummy and Daddy can really go mano-a-mano for Franklin’s love and devotion. While these two go at it, Franklin steadily deteriorates into infancy, which manifests itself in his unlovely habit of sucking his thumb.

Franklin’s regression eventually shows up in his work. Tschabalala Self designed Franklin’s art pieces — little brown puppets that grow into giant brown puppets as the play goes on. And on and on and on, which is the big problem that finally (after three long hours) brings the show to its knees.

Enough should be enough for Harris; but no, we have to hear, again and again and again, how gorgeous Franklin is, how talented Franklin is, and how deserving of Andre’s besotted devotion Franklin is. Harris is smart and his director is clever, but obsessive love — a writer’s own self-love, as much as a mother’s and a lover’s — is not a pretty sight, and eventually becomes a full-blown bore.

Off Broadway Review: ‘Daddy’ Starring Alan Cumming

Pershing Square Signature Center / Linney Theater; 196 seats; $105 top. Opens March 5, 2019. Reviewed March 3. Running time:  TWO HOURS, 45 MIN.

  • Production: A co-production of the New Group and Vineyard Theater, of a play in three acts by Jeremy O. Harris
  • Crew: Directed by Danya Taymor. Set, Matt Saunders; costumes, Montana Levi Blanco; lighting, Isabella Byrd; sound, Lee Kinney; hair, wigs, makeup, Cookie Jordan; original score & instrumental arrangements, Lee Kinney; original vocal music & vocal arrangements, Darius Smith & Brett Macias; original doll design, Tschabalala Self; production stage manager, Valerie A. Peterson.
  • Cast: Carrie Compere, Alan Cumming, Tommy Dorfman, Kahyun Kim, Denise Manning, Hari Nef, Onyie Nwachukwu, Ronald Peet, Charlayne Woodard.
  • Music By: