Della, the North Carolina baker at the center of Bekah Brunstetter’s play The Cake, is a deeply conflicted woman. She’s not a cultural punching bag — a Paula Deen or Tammy Faye, clownishly unhip and down-home devout — but a sensitive soul who believes in following the rules. Specifically, she insists on following baking recipes without deviation, and, when it comes to sex roles and rituals, adhering to church doctrine.
Della is preparing to compete in a TV bake-off when she is visited by Jen, the daughter of her late best friend, who asks her to bake her wedding cake. The only problem: Jen is marrying a woman, Macy, and the two are living ultra-progressive lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. Della tells Jen she’s too busy and can’t bake the cake, but they both know the real reason why: Della can’t integrate a same-sex relationship into her worldview. When Jen asks Della what her late mom would have thought of her marrying Macy, Della says, with sympathy, “It would break her heart.”
The play, which opened off-Broadway in 2019 and is at the Provincetown Theater’s outdoor Playhouse in the Parking Lot through July 22, has been noted for its topicality, coming a year after the Supreme Court decided that a Colorado baker’s religious beliefs allowed him to violate civil rights law and refuse to bake a wedding cake for a gay male couple.
But Brunstetter, a successful TV writer from North Carolina, focuses on the personal relationships involved, not on the law or religion. The author’s political bent is not in doubt: though Jen is torn by her emotional connection to her Southern upbringing and its moral judgments, she understands the liberating effect of coming out and recognizes that it’s her personal truth. The Cake is not an “issue” play, per se: it’s a social comedy, empathetic to everyone’s foibles — from Macy’s lefty dogma to Della’s ailing sex life with her good ol’ boy husband, Tim — and that’s how David Drake, the Provincetown Theater’s artistic director and the director of this show, treats it.
Local scenic design master Ellen Rousseau has created a joyful candy-colored cartoon of a set, with Della’s bake shop in the middle and the roll-out bedrooms of the two couples on either side — Macy and Jen on the left, Della and Tim on the right. Though susceptible to cancellations because of weather, the Playhouse in the Parking Lot is covered in a cushion of artificial grass and rows of comfy benches: it’s a lovely summer setting for a comedy confection such as The Cake.
The most winning attraction of this production, however, is the performance of Jennifer Cabral as Della, and her repartee with real-life husband Ian Leahy, who plays Tim. The play’s dramatic conflict rests on Della’s shoulders, and Cabral gets the emotions right. The couple is childless, and Tim’s realization that he’s infertile has killed his libido, or so he says. Their attempts to rekindle desire, enhanced by food, are the play’s funniest bits, and Cabral and Leahy are marvelous together.
Della is a frustrated contender in a man’s world: she has fantasy encounters with the bake-off host (the voice of Fred Jodry) and her pride and personal investment in her cakes and her shop are clear. The comedy of the situation is somewhat murkier in these scenes, but Cabral gives Della an earthy dimension that holds them together and keeps it real.
As the lesbian couple, Jackie Marino-Thomas as Macy and Vanessa Rose as Jen are persuasive and appealing, but, despite some bickering over Macy’s inflexibility and Jen’s sense of shame, there’s not much doubt about their love and the wedding itself. That’s why the real character arc belongs to Della.
Brunstetter knows how to construct a traditional comedy, and the heartbreak never lasts too long. The Cake comes out of the oven as lighter pastry than Della’s recipes might lead one to expect. But after a year and a half of Covid, Drake has a pretty good sense of where he can take his audience. The company’s next production is Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie, which is heavier material, indeed. By then, we’ll be ready. For now, The Cake is a tasty way to welcome live theater back into our routines — including a delicious surprise at the end!
The event: The Cake, by Bekah Brunstetter
The time: Monday through Thursday, 7 p.m.
The place: The Provincetown Theater’s outdoor Playhouse in the Parking Lot, 238 Bradford St. (enter at rear)
The cost: $40/$50 (premium seats) at provincetowntheater.org