Playwrights sometimes think it’s clever to try to disarm criticism by preempting it. Take Jeremy O. Harris, who’s play Daddy is running Off-Broadway at the Pershing Square Signature Center in a co-production of The New Group and the Vineyard Theatre.
Harris dubs Daddy “a melodrama,” which it sure is. It’s also a play with music, a comedy-drama and a soft-porn stage show.
But if Harris and his director, Danya Taymor, expect audiences to excuse his excesses as attributes of melodrama, he’s mistaken. Melodrama cannot forgive what feels funny about Daddy — as in funny-peculiar — almost from the beginning.
Daddy takes place by a long rectangular pool at the front of a convincing notion of a home designed by Matt Saunders. We know it’s Hollywood, or maybe Palm Springs, by the palm trees painted behind and above a sea of glass doors. We figure it’s some moneybag’s pad by two paintings on the wall of an interior corridor. One looks like a Franz Kline or a Robert Motherwell; the other, identified in dialogue, looks enough like a Cy Twombly to pass as one. (Poor David Hockney, whose “Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures)” goes overlooked!)
The moneybag is Andre (Alan Cumming), who is giddily infatuated with Franklin (Ronald Peet), a young Black artist that he’s brought poolside, apparently, for the first time. As they take dips in the water — both increasingly naked as the scenes accumulate — their affair intensifies. Andre eagerly becomes Franklin’s patron, lending him an upstage work space and helping to underwrite his first solo gallery show of the small autobiographical dolls that he sews, reminding us of such artists as Louise Bourgeois and Lesley Dill.
Soon after Andre and Franklin commingle, Franklin calls Andre “Daddy,” lending Harris’ title a steamy frame — steamy enough that, at one moment, Andre penetrates Franklin in the pool. (Before Daddy ends, the pool serves as any number of things, including a baptismal font.)
For a time, the Andre-Franklin bonding is observed and blabbed about by Franklin’s friends Max (Tommy Dorfman) and Bellamy (Kahyum Kim), who also discourse about art with the kind of inane chatter best reserved for a spoof. It alarming how disarming Harris wants to be: Bellamy, a ditzy know-nothing wearing ultra-fashionable Tinseltown clothes chosen by costume designer Montana Levi Blanco, acknowledges that other people consider her and Max to be vapid, too. Later, we meet Franklin’s air-headed gallerist, Alessia (Hari Nef).
Things move along, full-frontals for Andre and Franklin repeated, until Harris’ melodrama begins in earnest with the arrival of Zora (Charlayne Woodard), Franklin’s mother, who is discovered singing in the pool, fully dressed, surrounded by a Gospel Choir — the gloriously intoning Carrie Compere, Denise Manning, Onyie Nwachukwu. (Original vocal music and vocal arrangements are by Darius Smith and Brett Macias; original score and instrumental arrangements are by Lee Kinney; music supervision is by Macias. Part of George Michael’s song “Father Figure” is reprised more than once — especially the line “I want to be your daddy.”)
The melodrama kicks into high gear when the play becomes a fight between Andre, who is so convinced that he’s in love with Franklin that he proposes to him, and Zora, who raised her son alone after his biological father walked out. This is also Franklin’s fight, too.
Did I mention that Franklin reverts to thumb-sucking? He does — but before he does, he weighs in with his own attitudes about art, including a remark that wants to be trenchant — “art is worth less once it’s owned” — but isn’t. It’s the sort of hypothesis that a deft art theorist might persuasively argue, but Franklin isn’t one of them, and neither is Alessia.
Harris’ three-act play not only goes on far longer than it needs to, it doesn’t hold water — the prominence of the pool notwithstanding. Perhaps it is true that in real life we cannot understand what our friends see in their Significant Others, but in art — in this play — it’s necessary. The characters fail to persuade us as to who they are.
Andre is so delighted with Franklin that he all but claps his hands like Eddie Cantor singing “Makin’ Whoopee,” but why? Who is Andre? He’s an art collector looking not to collect art on canvas but a young man. Nothing more about him is learned, other than he’s kept his lean figure into middle age. Zora tries to pin him down but only receives a vague response about collecting art. Is Andre to-the-money-born? Does he have financial wherewithal due to producing blockbuster movies or running a hot agency or…what?
Harris fills in more on the relationship between Zora and Franklin — and Zora, poor thing, has to witness Franklin spanked by Andre while both men are naked, per usual, at the pool.
Zora may be a clinging mother, she has insights about her son. At one point, she tells him that his dolls are only versions of the “coon babies” that she remembers being sold during the Christmases of her youth. But Harris, having outlined Zora’s tenacity and Franklin’s resistance to it, goes no further; he reduces their mounting mother-son disconnect to a tired father-abandoned-the-family theme. This echoes the psychological supposition that people who fall for older lovers want parental surrogates — or, in this case, a daddy, with or without sugar.
One problem with melodrama is it tends to hold characters to two dimensions rather than three. And so it is in Daddy, where the actors are limited in what the are asked to do, despite director Taymor’s deft handling of them. Woodard manages to make Zora full-bodied and angry while, on the other hand, Peet more or less descends from thumbs-up talented to thumb-sucking. Dorfman, Kim and Nef really get only one dimension — at which they’re fine. Cumming, always appealing, is kept to alternating between flighty and flinty. Also, his standing downstage center completely naked for 20 or 30 seconds does give an entirely new meaning to in-your-face.
There is one literally splashy musical sequence in Daddy that is genuine fun. But subtitling this play a “melodrama” is Harris’ giveaway. Minus abundant frills, I think he knows there just isn’t much of a substantial play here.