Early on in “Daddy,” a provocative new play about a filthy rich art collector in his late 50s obsessed with a black artist in his mid 20s, we hear a strained musical phrase from George Michael’s mega-hit, “Father Figure.”
This being a play written by the fearless Jeremy O. Harris (earlier this season he wowed and offended audiences with the explosive “Slave Play”) and starring the incomparably audacious Alan Cumming, it figures that, a few scenes later, Cumming would produce a microphone out of nowhere and belt out a harrowed rendition of the song. Not just a verse or two, but practically the entire song, accompanied by a small gospel choir. The lyrics are appropriate indeed.
And this is only one of many such moments that challenge and provoke and bewilder. The play is subtitled “A Melodrama” but that only begins to describe this emotionally charged, genre-busting work which is part satire, part magical realism, and part fever dream. Everyone likes to talk but rarely do they truly listen.
As directed by Danya Taymor, who happens to be Julie Taymor’s niece, the dialogue registers as overwrought, even ludicrous at times. Yet for the most part, it works.
“Stay here. Talk to me tonight,” Andre says breathlessly, in a lusty European accent that bespeaks tons of money. “Say and say and say to me until you slip up and say something you never thought you’d think.”
Cumming, who isn’t shy about strutting around in a jock strap or totally naked, is riveting as gray-bearded Andre, the devilish art collector looking to acquire Franklin, an up-and-coming young artist, as if he were a painting. Andre’s vast collection sports such masters as Twombly, Lichtenstein, and Basquiat. He is not only attracted to Franklin’s youthful exuberance, talent, and luscious “chocolate” body, but also his cutting-edge taste in art.
“Let me see the world like you,” Andre says as they cavort by the pool, hopped up on Molly, at his ritzy Bel Air estate. And by pool I mean an actual pool, large enough to swim laps in (Matt Saunders designed the modernist, Hockney-esque set). Often characters find themselves splashing around fully clothed. And if you’re sitting in the front row, expect to get wet.
For his part, Franklin needs Andre’s money and connections to nurture his work, which consists of little dolls (“coon babies”) made of fabric, perhaps meant to represent aspects of himself. But he also hungers for a father figure, because his biological father bolted when he was an infant. A memory of his father returning a few years later to reconnect haunts Franklin, a recurring theme in the play.
The sex depicted onstage is more about power than pleasure. As the S&M element grows more violent, it’s difficult not to think of the master-slave dialectic and white supremacy themes so potent in “Slave Play.”
When Franklin’s hard-nosed Christian mother, Zora (forcefully embodied by Charlayne Woodard), visits to see his show at a prestigious art gallery, he is torn between the independence of his adult life and the fears of his inner child, and he begins to regress to an infantile state. Copious thumb-sucking is involved.
Ronald Peet is superb as Franklin, bringing a layered uneasiness into his portrayal of descent into childlike madness.
Zora is right to question Andre’s motives. Is something evil afoot?
Injecting a dose of comic relief are Franklin’s acid-tonged best friends, Max (Tommy Dorfman) and Bellamy (Kahyun Kim), who lounge by the pool sipping mimosas and doing bumps of cocaine, in awe that he “hit the jackpot” with his new sugar daddy. “It’s not like that,” insists Franklin.
There’s also Alessia (Hari Nef), the heinously affected gallery owner who champions Franklin’s work, though we sense she’ll to drop him the second he’s no longer hot.
To be sure, “Daddy” is a fiercely theatrical, disturbing exploration of intimacy and racial and sexual identity. It is among the few productions I’ve seen that dares to portray the perverse intensity of Daddy-Son role play, more common in the gay world than most people realize. What’s more, the psychodrama contains more frontal male nudity and graphic gay sex than virtually any major play in recent memory.
Despite how you feel about the savagely surreal conceit and nearly three-hour running time, you can’t deny that Harris displays an uncanny brilliance. And plenty of guts.
DADDY | The New Group and Vineyard Theatre | Pershing Square Signature Center/ Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre, 480 W. 42nd St. | Through Mar. 31: Tue.-Fri. at 7:30 p.m.; Sat. at 2 & 8 p.m.; Sun. at 2 & 7:30 p.m. | $85-$135 at thenewgroup.org | Two hrs., 50 mins., with two intermissions
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