THE CAKE at the Stageworks Theater is a sweet and sometimes hearty look at gay marriage in the South
There’s a moment in the Stageworks Theater production of Bekah Brunstetter‘s The Cake in which the character of Jen (played with the sweetness of Southern Belle by Ashley Cooper) breaks down to Della (his “unofficial godmother”, as the play puts it) about his desire to marry the woman he ‘she likes. She knows the people in her hometown of North Carolina disapprove, and she’s begging Della for something – nothing – to tell her that it’s okay, that loving who she loves doesn’t mean having to give up where she comes from.
“But I love him!” Jen exclaims with a childlike desperation that made me want to get on stage and hug her. Cooper delivers this line with heartbreaking simplicity – as if her entire argument for why she should be able to have the wedding of her dreams boiled down to those four words; as if begging Della to affirm that, despite everything they were both raised to believe, the love she feels is enough.
It’s moments like this that capture the heart of Brunstetter’s play. Written in 2019, The cake adapts the story of a pastry shop that refused to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple to create a narrative about what happens when our love for one person or thing gets in the way of our ability to love another. Although the internal narrative sometimes falters in the Stageworks Theater production, moving moments like the one above keep the play afloat.
The play begins quite simply. We meet Della (actress Laura Chapman), owner of a Southern pastry shop whose whole belief in baking (and life) comes down to the maxim she delivers in her opening monologue: “Follow the recipe”. Although we don’t realize it at the time, we learn a lot about Della through this line: he’s someone who clings firmly to the familiar. Chapman pulls out all the stops to charm audiences with Della’s sweet, sugary disposition, maintaining an electric smile and a busy physique that can seem almost manic.
It helps that Della’s shop set design displays rows and rows of mouth-watering cakes to look at. I found myself distracted several times by a particularly delicious chocolate number (as I’m a kind reviewer, I’ve included a photo for your convenience). Looking at these confections, I have no trouble believing what the script tells us about Della: she’s a real magician with a cake pan.
Della then meets Macy (Monica Cummings), a hyperliberal New York journalist who is anything but charmed by Della’s optimistic worldview. Della flounders, trying to have a meaningful conversation with Macy, but the awkward meter skyrockets when we meet Jen and learn that she and Macy are engaged — and she wants Della to bake their wedding cake.
Being the good Southern woman that she is, Della is uncomfortable with the request and refuses it, stating that she will be too busy with other orders. But we, along with Jen and Macy, know the real reason. The rest of the play unfolds as the characters attempt to reconcile the beliefs they have been taught and their affection for their loved ones.
Oddly enough, though, it’s not Della but Jen that we see struggling with this the most. While Della does indeed spend time overcoming her doubts, much of her arc is also devoted to her stale marriage to her husband, Tim (Jonathan Rozas). Jen, however, spends the entire room being pulled in different directions. Her mind is a battleground between her deep love for Macy and the devout loyalty to her hometown that was instilled in her as a child. Cooper mostly captures this tense internal conflict, though she does get a little undertone in her more intense scenes.
As for Chapman, there are times when his performance as Della comes across as a bit plastic. For the most part, however, she maintains a firm grip on the audience’s heartstrings. She is particularly effective during her fantasy scenes where she imagines herself as a contestant for the “Big American Bake-Off”. His eager-to-please smile and bright-eyed optimism give the character a vulnerability that betrays deeper insecurities. She’s a woman whose husband hasn’t touched her in years, who bakes cakes because it’s the only thing that makes her feel valued, and who desperately wants to feel useful.
This sincerity leads to what might be the most moving scene in the production, in which Della and Tim have an honest conversation about why their passion for each other has dried up and gone. – and if they can ever get it back. This scene is Rozas’ only chance to show off his dramatic assets as Tim, who tends to keep his emotions close to his chest. Neither actor disappoints, and the scene becomes one of the tightest moments in play as two actors connect and listen to each other.
As for Macy, Cummings’ performance is mostly straightforward, which matches Macy’s direct and confrontational demeanor. However, Macy can be one-dimensional at times (she’s liberal! She doesn’t eat gluten! She reads Slate Magazine!) and neither Cummings nor director Lisa Garza does much to give her more depth. There are hints of deeper layers when she talks about the struggles of being a black lesbian, but the script doesn’t follow those threads, and the production doesn’t integrate them into Macy’s other scenes.
I couldn’t help but want those diapers during Macy’s interactions with Della. Macy and Della have perhaps the most interesting dynamic in the piece, which is probably why Brunstetter chooses to have them finish the piece. Too often, however, I lose the sense that these characters actually want something from each other or that the actors listen to each other. Of course, Macy doesn’t listen to Della; she simply uses him as a target for her pent up frustration (one could argue that Della is trying listen to Macy’s). Yet even if the characters are used as echo chambers, there must be an underlying motivation. Cummings and Chapman seem too uncertain of their roles in the scene to give the conflict the sense of interiority it needs to land.
The main problem here is a lack of listening (ironically, given that listening to others is the most important theme of the play). Too often actors seem to play at each other rather than with each other, and some scenes feel cold as a result. The actors are by no means lacking in charm or personality. Still, paying more attention to their scene partners would help motivate their interactions and provide the sense of connection these scenes need. Without that connection, the show plays out like a well-meaning after-school special about homophobia. Sweet, fun, and sometimes even quite heartfelt, but ultimately less than what Brunstetter gives us.
The suits are solid all around. Designer Roxanne Emery makes a fun decision for Jen and Macy’s wedding, putting Macy in an outfit of white pants with a sunflower wrap. The pop of color helps avoid turning the event into a stereotypical (and sometimes gender-coded) lesbian wedding in which one bride wears a dress while the other wears a suit. Rather, this choice gives the whole a sense of specificity.
Overall, Stageworks has taken a gently sentimental piece with militant aspirations and put together a production that should appease its audience. The pacing could be tightened up and some story beats only scratch the surface of what the script offers, but the core of the series is intact. The comedic timing also helps lighten the mood and makes the audience more likely to forgive the flaws in the performances. When Della tries to trick her husband into having sex with her for the first time in years by covering himself in his homemade buttercream (“You know you like my buttercream…”), the audience can’t stop laughing.
This production of The cake may not be perfect, but what it lacks in thematic depth it makes up for in pastry charm and good intentions. If nothing else, it’s worth the trip for the free cake you’ll find in the lobby after the show! I recommend German chocolate, but if you’re more of a red velvet type, I guess we can learn to accept each other.
Cake is currently running through April 3 at the Stageworks Theater. Tickets start at $21 and can be purchased at https://www.stageworkshouston.org/the-cake or by calling the box office at (281) 587-6100.