If “The Cake” at Rivendell Theatre Ensemble were indeed a highly decorated confection, rather than a play about gay marriage, it would be red and blue and split down the middle.
Set in North Carolina, “The Cake” places its figurative finger on the nation’s cultural divide, providing a deeply sympathetic portrait of a passionate baker named Della (Tara Mallen), who is caught off guard when a dear family friend — who now lives in Brooklyn (of course) — requests a wedding cake for her nuptials to her lesbian fiancée.
When: Through May 20
Where: Rivendell Theatre Ensemble, 5779 N. Ridge
Run time: 90 minutes with no intermission
Given that this subject forms the basis of a soon-to-be-decided Supreme Court case (Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission), it would be reasonable to expect an issue drama, constructed of argument and counter-argument. There’s a delicate sprinkling of that, but playwright Bekah Brunstetter, who writes for the megahit TV show “This Is Us,” has a different recipe in mind, a non-judgmental, warm-hearted take on people trying to simultaneously be true to themselves and live up to others’ expectations, and finding that balance excruciatingly difficult to find.
Mallen’s Della is genuine and likable from the start. The play opens with a monologue about — what else? — baking, and in Della’s conception it is all about following directions, achieving the perfect flavor a test of “time and obedience.” Beware departures from the tried and true, she cautions, with particular scorn heaped on nut-based milk and all things gluten-free. We then immediately segue to her trying valiantly to make pleasant conversation with a gluten-free, dairy-free, ultra-liberal lesbian.
This is Macy (Krystel McNeil), whom Della will soon find out is engaged to Jen (Tuckie White), who is greeted by Della with a giant smile and a teary hug. Jen is the child of Della’s late best friend, even something of a surrogate daughter. But despite the obvious joy at the reunion, Della suddenly finds her wedding cake calendar a bit too full to fit them in.
The ramifications in this fully fictional tale, inspired by cases like Masterpiece but not based on any, are personal and not legal. Della feels torn by her choice, and finds that Jen’s discovery of love causes her to question the sexless status quo of her marriage to husband Tim (the always convincing everyman Keith Kupferer). And Jen, in White’s sensitive and nuanced portrayal, is pained by being a source of pain for Della and, in the most moving moments of the play, explains to Della what it’s like to be torn between two worlds.
The strictest judgments come from Macy, who has agreed to go along with Jen’s desire for a Southern wedding (her mother left her money for just this occasion), but bristles at Jen’s insistence she respect people’s disapproval. It may well be the toughest role, and McNeil makes her credible. And despite falling clearly on the side of empathy and understanding of various viewpoints, perhaps the most interesting question Brunstetter poses is whether at some point such respect becomes a form of self-loathing.
The play is sweet and never too blatantly sugary, and Della and Jen are both deeply true characters for whom Brunstetter has obvious kinship (she is herself from North Carolina, living in famously leftist Hollywood). And director Lauren Shouse guides the proceedings with the right delicate touch. The set, from designer Arnel Sancianco, is spot-on perfect, with the bakery looking absolutely real and even cake-like in its pink and white stripes, and wainscoting ingeniously disguising pull-out beds for the home-based scenes.
And Mallen is a treat to watch, particularly in the moments when the play gets a bit fanciful. Della has been selected to be a contestant on “The Great American Baking Show,” and imagines being called out for baking errors and bigotry alike. There’s even a moment of potential misogyny, a bit of possible prescience since the play was written prior to the cancellation of that show due to sexual harassment allegations — another manifestation of our deep culture conflicts.
There’s another cultural fissure, though, that at least to this northern urbanite seems uncomfortably avoided. Only Macy ever acknowledges that she is African-American, and even then doesn’t even suggest that the biracial aspect of their coupledom may also be a cause of discomfort and disapproval. That’s a bit of difficulty when writing a play that is fundamentally a compassionate picture of prejudice: If we twist the cause of the prejudice just a touch, the entire architecture of sympathy can crumble. But by avoiding it completely, Brunstetter tries to have her cake, and eat it too.
Steven Oxman is a local freelance writer.