Los Angeles Theater Review: THE CAKE (The Echo Theater Company in Atwater Village)

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by Tony Frankel on July 6, 2017

in Theater-Los Angeles


Thirty-something Jen (Shannon Lucio) is torn. She wants her deceased mother’s best friend, Della (Debra Jo Rupp), a talented but struggling baker, to create her wedding cake. So with her betrothed she returns from New York to her hometown in conservative North Carolina, and finds that Della is tickled pink to honor her wish—until she discovers that Jen’s intended, Macy (Carolyn Ratteray), is a woman. In Bekah Brunstetter’s well-written world premiere by Echo Theater, Della—who daydreams about, and is soon to appear on, the “Great American Baking Show” as a contestant—will find her deep-rooted beliefs and long-term marriage challenged by Jen’s decision.

Front and center in this thoroughly professional production is Ms. Rupp as Della. Watching this seasoned actress (That ’70s Show) grappling with her equivalent love for Jen and Jesus is akin to observing a master class in acting. Even with other capable thespians on stage, I couldn’t take my eyes off of Rupp because she actively listens, reacting organically with a freshness and veracity that is unparalleled. Aside from Brunstetter’s coda of convergence, Rupp’s vulnerability is the reason why the ending is so touching.

The polar opposite of Della is Jen’s staunch fiancée, Macy, an opinionated, gluten-free, New York, left-wing, intellectual who blogs about Della on Facebook, an act so hateful that I found myself rooting for Della, even as Della spouts Biblical verses to support her decisions. Brunstetter’s characters, including Della’s congenially complacent husband, Tim (a captivating Joe Hart), are full-fledged people, but they spout a lot of timely rhetoric that threatens to feel obsolete once The Cake appears at La Jolla Playhouse next year; the play is also slated for more regional theaters, including The Warehouse. (Interestingly enough, as with Geffen’s Georgia McBride, the central couple is mixed-race—specifically black and white—but there is no mention of it by outsiders; strange given this is small-town North Carolina, one of the last holdouts of Civil War-era southern idealism.)

There are three types of plays in The Cake: One is the Problem Play, which takes prickly social disputes and filters them through the debates of characters who embody contradictory viewpoints within a representative community context; as with Ibsen, one of the greatest innovators of this theater style, Brunstetter creates a central character who is suffering from a moral dilemma.

The Cake also belongs to Theatre of Identity, aka Issue Theatre; the idea is to promote a particular cultural identity—in this case, gays and their right to marry. This style of theater usually contains educational preaching and/or happy endings for the disenfranchised therein (check and check). Although these plays demonstrate varying degrees of efficacy, depending upon on their production values (excellent at the Atwater Village Theatre), they all avoid true greatness because the scripts tend to concentrate on issues, not story. Brunstetter concentrates on both, which makes this play less a universal provocation and more a super-smart After School Special. Because of this, the playwright avoids mawkishness even within a huge slice of sentimentalism.

The magic here is that Brunstetter, within her own parameters, manages to create an entertaining script, even though it’s flavor-of-the-day theater: issues, small cast, 90 minutes/no intermission, and dialogue that belongs more to TV than theater. Even Jennifer Chambers’ fluid direction feels like a sit-com (which isn’t a put-down; remember, the sit-com structure was based on theater); I felt like this could have been filmed in a 3-camera studio (Pete Hickok’s stunning bakery design is representational enough to be on TV).

A recommended event? Absolutely. But my fear is that if plays like this succeed, than less-qualified playwrights will copy this paradigm badly, as educators will teach budding playwrights that this is the kind of play which sells. And that means American theater will continue on its trajectory to become no more nutritious than a slice of cake.

photos by Darrett Sanders

The Cake
The Echo Theater Company
Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave in Atwater Village
Fri, Sat & Mon at 8; Sun at 4
ends on August 6, 2017 EXTENDED through August 13, 2017
with added Wednesday and Thursday performances at 8
for tickets, call 310-307-3753 or visit Echo Theater Company

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