The New Group/Vineyard Theatre at the Pershing Square Signature Center
The Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre
480 West 42nd St. between between Ninth & Tenth Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through March 31, $40-$135
Jeremy O. Harris’s “Daddy” is a monumental work of bold genius, a searing, audacious investigation into the creation and ownership of both art and people, constructed around the sins of the father. The play, a joint production of the New Group and the Vineyard that opened tonight at the Signature Center’s Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre, takes place in and around an infinity pool in a Bel Air mansion; Matt Saunders’s delightful set prominently features several chaise longues on a deck and a gleaming blue pool in the front that was inspired by David Hockney paintings, particularly Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures), which sold at auction for more than ninety million dollars this past November, as well as A Bigger Splash, Peter Getting Out of Nick’s Pool, and Portrait of Nick Wilder. (In 1966-67, a twenty-nine-year-old Hockney lived with Wilder, an older art dealer, in the latter’s Hollywood home, although this is not their story.)
Ronald Peet stars as Franklin, a twentysomething black artist who has recently moved to Los Angeles. Following an opening at a hot new gallery, Franklin has come home with Andre (Alan Cumming), an absurdly wealthy fiftysomething white art collector. Andre worships Franklin’s lithe body, comparing his legs to Naomi Campbell’s, while a very high Franklin, who is preparing for his first gallery show, expounds on the intrinsic value of art, arguing that “art loses its worth the minute it can be bought. . . . It becomes worthless once its owned.” He’s not referring merely to Andre’s holdings — which includes works by Cy Twombly, Cindy Sherman, Diane Arbus, and Alexander Calder and a room of Basquiats — but also colonialism and slavery. Andre and Franklin debate the artistic value of Kara Walker’s A Subtlety installation of a giant white “mammy” figure in the old Domino Sugar Factory in Williamsburg, and it’s no coincidence that Andre purchases Basquiats, a black artist who gained fame through his close association with the white Andy Warhol.
Franklin is soon at home in Andre’s place, inviting over his crew: fashion-obsessed Bellamy (Kahyun Kim) and struggling white actor Max (Tommy Dorfman), who supply comic relief through their jealousy of Franklin; each of them would love to have a “sugar daddy” too, although Franklin bristles at the term. He believes his relationship with Andre is something other than a clichéd fling. Nevertheless, Franklin has taken to calling Andre “Daddy” during sex, which occurs often throughout the play — there is ample nudity and graphic simulations. Absent fathers are everywhere: While Franklin never met his father, which haunts him, Andre’s father got him started collecting art, giving him a Degas. Franklin’s gallerist, the young, white Alessia (Hari Nef), also hails from a wealthy family (she took over the gallery from her father) and believes Franklin’s upcoming show will help put her on the map; it’s yet another example of a rich white person “owning” a black person, made all the more clear when we see the tiny soft-sculpture dolls Franklin is making for the exhibition. When Franklin’s Bible-thumping mother, Zora (Charlayne Woodard), arrives, she is not exactly thrilled about her son’s living situation or artwork. As Franklin tries to find his place in this superficial Hollywood world, he is accompanied by a kind of Greek chorus in the form of a three-woman gospel choir (Carrie Compere, Denise Manning, and Onyie Nwachukwu) that represents his heart and soul, which are up for grabs.
In the script, Harris (Xander Xyst, Dragon: 1, WATER SPORTS; or insignificant white boys) explains, “When lost look to melodrama for direction (see: [Peter] Brooks’s Melodramatic Imagination), because this play moves from melodrama's dream to melodrama’s nightmare.” Director Danya Taymor (Familiar, Pass Over) has no such problem delivering the melodrama, from dream to nightmare; it’s a phenomenal staging, with vibrant, colorful costumes by Montana Levi Blanco, glistening lighting by Isabella Byrd (especially when the reflection of the pool’s waves dance across the walls), lovely original music adapted from a standard ring tone by Lee Kinney, and inspirational vocal music and arrangements by Darius Smith and Brett Macias. Peet (Spill, Kentucky) makes a major breakthrough as Franklin, giving a brave performance in which he lets it all hang out, emotionally and physically, combining sex appeal with an overt neediness and a major father complex. Tony and Olivier winner Cumming (Cabaret, The Good Wife) is utterly charming as Andre, a commanding, cultured man who loves collecting pretty things. “Beauty is beauty is beauty, Franklin. No matter whose eyes are seeing it,” he tells his lover. And two-time Obie winner and Tony nominee Woodard (Ain’t Misbehavin’, The Witch of Edmonton) ratchets it up as Zora, especially in the third act, when Kim and Dorfman get to strut their stuff while the masterful Cumming unfortunately has a lot less to do.
Harris’s fierce, polarizing Slave Play recently ran at New York Theater Workshop, and the three-act, 165-minute “Daddy” (with two intermissions) deals with some of the same topics (race, sex, power) but takes them to a whole new level, exploring the concept of a father as reality and fantasy, metaphor and obsession, presence and absence: Andre spanks Franklin like he’s a child, Zora prays to the Lord for guidance, Franklin discusses the origin of his dolls, the choir sings, “Daddy won’t nothing but a ‘shhhhhhh,’” and several characters get in the pool and blast out a hysterically relevant George Michael song. The pool is more than a cool part of the set; it also serves as a baptismal font, making us all believe in the power of art and theater, which becomes even more palpable when the first few rows get splashed. Even though the ending is muddy, “Daddy” is an extraordinary piece of storytelling, a masterful work of art that demands to be seen.