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Photo: Matt Saunders Review
“I’m a bit too much,” Jeremy O. Harris recently told “The New York Times,” and that statement applies just as equally to “Daddy,” his extremely bold, rather sprawling and consistently hyper-theatrical play, now being given a first-class co-production by the New Group and the Vineyard Theatre at the Pershing Square Center Signature Center under the inventive direction of Danya Taymor. Indeed. if excess isn’t your thing -- and, perhaps, even if it is -- “Daddy” may well have you “crying uncle” before the last words of Harris’ script are even spoken.

Having made quite a splash last fall with “Slave Play,” Harris is making a more literal splash with this three-hour, self-titled melodrama set in and around a pool in a swanky Bel Air mansion (gorgeously designed by Matt Saunders). “Daddy” tackles a virtual ocean’s worth of provocative subjects, none moreso than the transactional nature of relationships in today’s society, here exemplified by the pairing of Franklin (the impressive – in every sense of the word -- Ronald Peet), an emotionally troubled, perpetually infantilized young artist, and Andre (the ever-fearless Alan Cumming), his much older, controlling-yet vulnerable lover, an art collector completely obsessed with the idea of “ownership.”

Cumming and Peet bare all, figuratively and literally, in these roles, and even participate in scenes of sexual sadomasochism that are depicted with a kind of realism rarely seen on the stage. But, as was true of “Slave Play,” Harris isn’t interested in just give us eye candy; he’s striving to serve us brain food. Among the thought morsels being handed out are questions about the need for religious faith, the value (or lack thereof) of modern art and fashion, and the importance of being true to one’s own principles.

That latter dilemma affects everyone on stage, from Franklin’s Gucci-loving gal-pal Bellamy (a funny Kahyun Kim) and enthusiastic gallerist Allesia (Hari Nef, a bit over-the-top) to Franklin’s jealous best friend, aspiring actor Max (the lithe Tommy Dorfman in a fine stage debut). But it’s most important to Franklin’s ultra-religious mother, Zora, played with fire and ice by the incredibly brilliant Charlayne Woodard.

Somewhat surprisingly, the scripture-quoting, straight-shooting Zora proves to be the play’s most complex character. She is fiercely determined to save her son, not so much from a lifestyle that she likely disapproves of, but from a relationship she unflinchingly detests. If that requires an on-the-spot baptism/exorcism, so be it. If it involves more than a touch of guilt, conveyed by phone or in person, ditto. And if it means squaring off directly with Andre – and Cumming is at his best in their scenes together -- she’s up for that too. But if it requires telling Franklin the truth about his most seminal childhood experience, well, that’s a whole other story.

There can be no denying Harris’ gifts as a writer, and “Daddy” has some of the most memorable moments and exchanges you’ll see and hear on stage this year. But the play too often comes across, often simultaneously, as the product of a keenly intellectual mind, a self-satisfied undergraduate spewing back phrases he heard in some class one semester, and a young playwright who is afraid he’ll never get the chance to express himself again. (An early version of the play is what Harris reportedly used to help gain admission to the Yale School of Drama.)

Perhaps that fear also accounts for the full-on, choreographed rendition of George Michael’s “Father Figure,” the frequent appearances of a three-woman gospel choir (well sung by Carrie Compere, Denise Manning and Onyie Nwachukwu) and the life-size puppets that play a key role in the third act. The result of this too-much-is-never-enough approach is that some audiences may gave their hearts to “Daddy,” while others will be constantly looking for the proverbial shoreline where safer harbors might await.

By Brian Scott Lipton

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Alan Cumming, Tommy Dorfman, Kahyun Kim, Hari Nef, Ronald Peet, Charlayne Woodard

Open/Close Dates
Opening 2/12/2019
Closing 3/31/2019

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Theatre Info
Pershing Square Signature Center
480 West 42nd Street
New York, NY 10036