Psychosexual hang-ups were at the center of Jeremy O. Harris’s Slave Play earlier this season, and they form an important part of Daddy, his newest work. Daddy, too, has an interracial gay relationship at its core, but this time Harris’s interests encompass homophobia, ageism, materialism, parental strife, fundamentalist Christianity, and the philosophy of art.
Taking place in and around the patio of a swank Bel Air home (immaculately designed by Matt Saunders, with a swimming pool at the forestage), Daddy opens with crashing operatic chords; they recur at the start of each act, and they signal high-stakes struggles ahead.
In the opening scene, the homeowner, André, a middle-aged white art collector, and a young, strapping black pickup, Franklin, are in the midst of a drug-fueled evening of sex. (It seems unlikely that a New York play has had more square inches of nudity—if that’s the right measure—since Love! Valour! Compassion! in 1995.)
Franklin (Ronald Peet) is impressed by André’s art collection, but he also has strong opinions about it: “This screams nouveau riche,” he declares. Before long, Alan Cumming’s André has both invited Franklin to curate his collection and taken the younger man over his knee and spanked him, giving Franklin a mildly masochistic thrill. When Franklin blurts out “Daddy,” André accepts it as a term of endearment.
Soon Franklin is sharing the easy living at André’s with his old friends Max (Tommy Dorfman), a white former boyfriend, and Kahyun Kim’s Bellamy, a shallow gold digger. Bellamy is impressed by the name-brand sunglasses André has bought Franklin, and she has no qualms about sleeping with an older man herself: she has acquired a bracelet. The contrast between their attitudes to objects and sex, and at what point sex becomes a transaction, is just one element of Harris’s wide-ranging play.
More central to the plot, however, is Franklin’s relationship to his fundamentalist Baptist mother Zora (Charlayne Woodard, dressed by Montana Levi Blanco in bright solid colors). Zora first appears reciting letters to him, and eventually she shows up for his debut art show, which has been arranged by Alessia, an enthusiastic gallery owner (the stentorian Hari Nef). Alessia has discovered that Franklin makes small, crude dolls, and puts on an exhibition of them and admires Franklin’s “art.” Zora, who has seen the primitive dolls before, is more skeptical and offers a backhanded compliment:
You made a room full of white folk walk around with little coon babies on their arms like
they were Madonna or something.
It was a sight to behold.
But she’s also strangely quizzical about her son’s relationship to André: “Right now my spirit is unsettled,” she tells Franklin, and proceeds to quote the Bible (2 Timothy) about blasphemers and children being “disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy.” She is backed up by a gospel trio, who also serve as extras.
Unfortunately, in spite of her quoting Scripture, Zora is an unconvincing Baptist. The homophobia in the Baptist church is surely harsher than what she seems more concerned with—she calls André “Methuselah.” She tries to get Franklin to define their relationship, even after she has confronted André with her knowledge of the sexual aspect.
Things become surreal as Zora arranges a “baptism” for Franklin in the pool, and Franklin seemingly disappears, then casually reappears. That, and giant effigies that Franklin makes of “Daddy,” Zora, and himself push the play into bizarre territory.
The actors do a fine job, and Danya Taymor directs briskly, injecting some humor—when André goes to fetch salt and pepper for Zora, Cumming shows bewilderment about which direction his kitchen is. It’s stolen from Full Gallop, of course, but it’s still funny more than 20 years on. Harris is no slouch at satire either. As Bellamy reads a review of the show, he gets in a swipe at millennial attention spans and critics:
“While holding these crude, misshapen dolls
one feels like a priest of the vodun, or some other mystic.
Touched by a spirit that’s frightening in its purity.” Uh it’s so long...
But OK, I get the point. They liked it? Or something...
Still, by the time Franklin’s cell phone rings for the umpteenth time while he’s sucking his thumb—he has regressed to childhood as a memory of his father’s attempt to visit him, blocked by Zora, has bubbled up—one may still not be sure whether Harris’s ambitious plot has any universal relevance, or is merely a confounding portrait of a society floundering without values.
A coproduction of the New Group and the Vineyard Theatre, Daddy runs through March 31 at the Pershing Square Signature Center (480 W. 42nd St.). Evening performances are at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and Sunday, and at 8 p.m. Saturday; matinees are at 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. For tickets and more information, call Ticket Central at (212) 279-4200 or visit thenewgroup.org.