theater review

Theater Review: Surface Tension by the Pool, in Jeremy O. Harris’s “Daddy”

From “Daddy,” at the Signature Center. Photo: Matt Saunders

In a recent interview, the prodigiously hip young playwright Jeremy O. Harris — who can currently be found everywhere from Vogue and GQ to the Times and this magazine, usually wearing Gucci — talked about trying to preserve the integrity of his play “Daddy,” currently onstage at Signature Center in a co-production by the New Group and Vineyard Theatre. “Daddy” is Harris’s new-old play: It comes on the heels of the ferocious Slave Play, which closed in January at New York Theatre Workshop, but it’s the work of the playwright’s younger self. Specifically it’s the play Harris used to apply to grad school (he’s currently in the final semester of Yale School of Drama’s playwriting MFA). “I’m trying to maintain it and not change it, actually,” Harris said of “Daddy.” “I’m trying to hold myself accountable to the choices I was making when I was 25. The more I lean into who that person was, the more the play becomes beautiful to me.”

There’s a logic to that idea, and a kind of defiant confidence, because “Daddy” — which, thanks to Harris’s rising-star status and the New Group’s apparent tractor beam for celebrities, here features Alan Cumming — is definitely a youthful play, with all its sprawling formal and personal ambitions and all its shortcomings boldly on display. Its major frustration as a piece of writing is that, after plenty of intellectual razzle-dazzle, it wraps itself up with too neat a psychological bow. Meanwhile, the production isn’t quite committed to the text’s vast potential for either weirdness or emotional weight. “Daddy” is full of tense and titillating material (“Nudity and graphic sexual content” its description warns, or advertises, depending on your taste), but here it packs surprisingly little punch in the feeling department. I was never bored during its almost three hours and two intermissions, but I was also never really gripped anywhere south of the brain. Danya Taymor’s staging feels suspended in an in-between place — a realm of references and stylistic three-quarter gestures that render the play not “deeply surreal,” as its marketing copy proclaims, but instead dangerously close to a familiar contemporary genre, the Quirky Realist play. You know the kind: where people and circumstances are mostly recognizable and conversational but are periodically interrupted by something spooky or whimsical or meta but essentially palatable. This is a shame, because “Daddy” does in fact have deep surreality in its bones. It shouldn’t be palatable, and it shouldn’t be an intellectual exercise. It wants to be a wilder creature than that.

The story is a bit like one of its characters: loaded up with glitzy signifiers and wordy arguments but deceptively simple. (The play is subtitled A Melodrama, and melodramas tend to have simple roots underneath their heightened, histrionic branches.) Franklin (Ronald Peet) is a young black artist trying to make it in L.A. Andre (Cumming) is an older white collector with mountains of money, a house in the hills full of Twomblys and Cindy Shermans and Basquiats, plus an infinity pool. (That pool is the central feature of Matt Saunders’s slick, modernist Beverly Hills set: The front row of the audience is equipped with necessary towels.) In the play’s first scene, Franklin — “super high” after an art show and flush with the desirous intensity of Andre’s gaze — ends up in the older man’s pool and in his arms … and from then on out, doesn’t stray far from there. His best friend Max (Tommy Dorfman), a sun-kissed second-rate actor, is skeptical of this sugar-daddy arrangement. Their gal-pal Bellamy (Kahyun Kim), a floaty materialist with “9.3k Instagram followers,” is chill with it — after all, it means endless afternoons by the pool, with free sushi and mimosas and cocaine, and maybe even her very own friend-gift of the new Gucci sunglasses. There’s also Alessia (Hari Nef), an ambitious gallery owner who wants to cultivate a “relationship” with Franklin, and who gives him a very long pause and a very raised eyebrow when she finds out about Andre, followed by the quick, overenthusiastic assurance that “patronage is nothing to be ashamed of.” And then, across the country in Virginia, there’s Zora (Charlayne Woodard), Franklin’s mother and his link to a buried past. She appears straight-backed and chin-up in flawless business separates — backed by a gospel choir (Carrie Compere, Denise Manning, and Onyie Nwachukwu) that represents “Franklin’s forgotten heart and soul” — to leave assurances of God’s grace on her son’s always unanswered cell phone. And then she appears in the flesh, technically to see Franklin’s first major gallery show, but really to wage an all-out war with Andre, whom the increasingly infantilized Franklin has taken to calling “Daddy,” for the soul of her son.

Like the characters in Tony Kushner’s plays, many of Harris’s characters aren’t just smart, they’re fervent intellectuals — or they’re people whose intellects are perhaps half-awake, who don’t necessarily have weaponized vocabularies but who still get high on the parry and thrust of passionate conversation. Franklin is the former, while Andre, enamored of the brightly burning young man and possessing more money than real discernment, is the latter. When they’re not having sex, they’re debating about art. “Don’t you find that a bit gauche?” Franklin fires off after seeing Andre’s “room full of Basquiats.” He continues, “The pieces in that room are essentially in conversations with each other. Which is so boring. A Basquiat can’t be in conversation with itself. It has to be … like … like, Basquiat is such a big personality. There can only ever really be, like, one of him in a room at a time. Otherwise the space gets overwhelmed.” Or, even more fraught, their argument over Kara Walker’s sugar sculpture, which Franklin finds disturbing and Andre finds beautiful. “That’s my problem with her!” Franklin yelps, almost breathless. “You get to miss her subtlety. You get to fly by her pain and bathe in her spectacle … It’s not a nightmare or a dream you’re sharing, it’s a nightmare or a dream you’re witnessing. But I share it … I feel an orgy of feeling … where the primary ingredient is her pain … And your ability to ignore that pain in order to just see beauty … That’s my problem. That’s what scares me about what I do.”

This kind of dialogue, delivered at a violent tilt that almost trips itself up, feels like Harris’s calling card: a heady blend of the cerebral and the intimate, right at the place where the complexities and compromises of being an artist meet, in Harris’s words, the “insane” feeling of “being a black body in the world.” The playwright spent time in L.A.’s art scene and grew up with a single mother in Martinsville, Virginia. There’s plenty of his guts, and his brains, exposed in “Daddy.” But unlike in Slave Play, these moments of exposure feel more rhetorical than visceral. Taymor is often getting size out of her actors without necessarily achieving intense emotional depth. Woodard is putting her back into Zora, but can sometimes feel one-dimensional in her sturdiness and moral certainty, and as Franklin’s L.A. crowd, Dorfman, Kim, and Nef seem more parodic than nuanced. It’s easy to read all of them as, in their own special ways, shallow and insufferable, and Harris has in fact left room for a director to decide: Are they wicked West Coast caricatures, or are they strange, sad, lost real people? Taymor has them somewhere in the middle, and so they don’t make us feel much beyond mild amusement and/or aversion. We miss the potential for real frightening pathos when Bellamy, rising to give a toast, asks dreamily, “If it’s summer every day, when even is it?” The line gets a laugh, but she repeats it, and here, its repetition simply gets the same laugh again. That’s a lost opportunity for a sudden flash of perception in the hedonistic haze.

Meanwhile, Peet has an extraordinarily tough job, because his character dwindles over the course of the play. We meet him high, and, by design, we never really see him fully awake, fully in possession of himself. Instead, we watch him slip more and more toward childishness, sucking his thumb and yielding both to Andre’s patronage and his domination. Even as Franklin’s artistic output flourishes (he’s working on a series of dolls of black boys, the only objects over which he himself feels fatherly authority), he becomes silent, dawdling, babyish. The descent makes structural sense, but it also leaves us distanced from the center of Harris’s play — able to recognize Franklin’s suffering as a dramatic effect without truly feeling it. As Franklin loses himself, we too lose touch with him as a human being, rather than as a symbol. And though he has moments of lucidity, these feel like blips rather than real fractures, full flare-ups of his haunted, sleeping consciousness. Cumming’s Andre has a much easier time of it. For all the troubling layers of his desire for Franklin, he’s ultimately more sympathetic than sinister — an essentially decent man, interested in the world but fundamentally uncreative and unambitious. As an actor, Cumming can live mostly in the sun of realism, while Peet has to navigate the murky underworld of the surreal and the subconscious (Harris refers to this David Hockney painting in his notes on the play), and Taymor doesn’t dive confidently enough into those depths to help Peet fully crack open his role.

“Daddy,” says Harris in his stage directions, should move “from melodrama’s dream to melodrama’s nightmare.” The play wants to be a psychological phantasmagoria, something untethered and unsettling, funny and scary: David Lynch meets Adrienne Kennedy. But not only does Taymor’s production fail to take full advantage of the text’s richness — both its heightened landscape and its emotional humanity — Harris himself also puts an unsatisfying cap on his own play’s proliferating expansiveness. Spoiler alert: All of Franklin’s turmoil boils down to real daddy issues. Not that the character isn’t coping with an abundance of layers of identity — from his blackness to his queerness to his desire to submit to his desire for power — but Harris ends up tracing all these seething currents to such a clean single source, that the play’s power as a whole is diminished. David Foster Wallace does something similar in his story “Girl With Curious Hair,” in which the terrifying predilections of a sociopathic narrator are, at long last, traceable right back to an instance of extreme sexual perversion and humiliation, involving his militant father, during his childhood. On an analyst’s couch, all this might make sense, but storytelling isn’t therapy, and providing an identifiable source trauma in a play as rangy and ambitious as “Daddy” feels too tidy for the story’s own good. It turns exploration into explanation. And it leaves us, like Andre, not so much sharing in a nightmare as witnessing one.

“Daddy” is at the Signature Center’s Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre through March 31.

Theater: The Surface Tension of Jeremy O. Harris’s “Daddy”