If those two men who wanted a wedding cake had simply gone to another bakery when Jack Phillips declined their order, Colorado’s taxpayers would have saved hundreds of thousands of dollars and we all would have been spared a thoroughly unnecessary Supreme Court case. Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission limped to a finish earlier this week when the Commission dropped its complaint against Phillips. But its echoes continue to resound in an off-Broadway play, The Cake, which has just opened at the Manhattan Theatre Club in New York City Center after a six-week run in Los Angeles.
The play does not grapple with legal issues, which is probably just as well. Instead it examines the intersecting obligations of faith, friendship, conscience, and tolerance. As the title suggests, the central issue is a cake. Della (Debra Jo Rupp) owns a bakery in North Carolina, and she and her husband are Evangelical Christians who both put great stress on following rules and doing things the right way. So when Jen (Genevieve Angelson), the beloved daughter of a deceased close friend, who now lives in New York, asks Della to bake a cake for her wedding, Della is delighted — until she finds out that Jen is marrying a woman, whereupon she finds an excuse to decline the order and everyone quickly gets all huffy. (Marinda Anderson plays Jen’s intended, Macy, a firebrand journalist; Dan Daily plays Della’s blowhard husband, a weary and practical-minded plumber who finds gay sex as disgusting as sushi and vegetarianism. The director is Lynne Meadow, the playwright is Bekah Brunstetter, and the impressive sets are by John Lee Beatty.)
The Cake’s design becomes apparent early on. It’s the kind of story in which every character’s dominant flaw — harsh, rigid, weak, rude, silly, indecisive, etc. — is overdrawn when we first meet them, and you know immediately that by the end of the play the judgmental ones will soften up, the wishy-washy ones will find some backbone, and everybody will quarrel with one another and then reconcile. It’s a level or two above the Afterschool Special–for–grownups template that underlies most of the movies you swipe past on Netflix, but it doesn’t quite manage to transcend the limitations of its familiar plot.
The play begins with Della declaiming on how her years as a baker have taught her the importance of making cakes (and, by implication, doing everything else) the right way, with no shortcuts or substitutions. The story hinges on her monologue about the Bible and its stern notions of sin, which she sifts through in search of a way around them like John Roberts struggling to find a loophole in his originalist principles. In the end, you won’t be surprised to learn, she manages to find a Roberts-like solution to her confectionary dilemma.
The characters all turn out to have had formative experiences in their past that led to major crises or realizations. One of them is prone to sadistic sexual fantasies, which she narrates at uncomfortable length in a couple of spots, to everyone’s befuddlement (onstage and off — audience members were giving each other puzzled looks). In the play’s otherwise upbeat context, these interludes are like biting into a cupcake and finding a lug nut.
Parallels and connections between food and sex, and between politics and religion, abound. Macy is liberated about sex but uptight about food; after refusing to eat a bite of cake, she lectures Della on the evils of the sugar industry and “factory farms.” Underneath all this, she resents Della for being thin and struggles to suppress her own sinful food cravings. Her inflexible dogmatism, combined with her mockery of Della’s religious beliefs, recalls the familiar G. K. Chesterton paraphrase “When you stop believing in God, you’ll believe in anything,” and indeed, she evangelically insists that everyone must be political, because “ambivalence is just as lethal as violence.” Della, meanwhile, loves food but is fearful about sex; she craves more romance and tenderness from her husband and is secretly jealous of Macy’s passionate relationship with Jen (which is shaken when Jen’s speech becomes more southern and she brings Della a snack from Chick-fil-A).
In the final scene, Della quotes some moving lines about love, which Macy is surprised to hear are from 1 Corinthians, at which point Macy concedes that maybe Della, Christianity, and the South aren’t as fearsome as she had thought (and maybe eating the occasional bite of cake isn’t, either). So everyone comes out of the blow-up a little wiser and a little happier and a little more humble than they were before — just like real life, sort of. If you enjoy live theater and don’t mind paying New York prices, this evenhanded-by-liberal-standards play may be worth a visit. If not, just imagine what an Oscar-nominated movie inspired by Masterpiece Cakeshop would look like, and you won’t be too far off.