“The Cake” Reviewed by Dan Berkowitz

All right, let’s get this out of the way up front: I’ve been a fan of Debra Jo Rupp’s since I knew her as Debbie when we were both in an acting class in New York back in – well, let’s just say a few years ago. The acting class didn’t do me a lick of good, but she didn’t need it, as even then she was able to get a laugh where no one else would have thought it possible, to wring emotion simply from looking at you, and to command attention by her fierce ability to be viscerally real every moment.

After a number of years playing the mom on TV in That 70s Show, she moved back to the east coast and concentrated on stage work. That she is here now in Los Angeles, and appearing onstage in Bekah Brunstetter’s The Cake through August 6, is proof that God indeed loves the world, smiles on California, and wishes our civilization to flourish.

Debra Jo Rupp. Photo: Darrett Sanders

Ms Rupp’s character in The Cake also believes – deeply and intensely – that God loves the world. Or at least loves it enough to set down some rules and tell you that you better dang well follow them, just as a good baker has to dang well follow the rules for making a cake. If you don’t, it’ll turn out awful and a mess and it’ll taste like crap and no one will like it. Or you, for that matter.

Della (Ms Rupp) owns a bakery in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where her cakes – which indeed look luscious – are in high demand. The reason is that she sticks to the rules, as she outlines in an opening monologue: ya got to follow the recipe, ya got to measure, and above all ya got to use real ingredients like real milk and real butter and real sugar, none of this ersatz stuff like milk made from nuts – what’s that all about?!?

While she seems to be talking to herself – and to us – her audience for this peroration is actually a young woman who’s dropped in to sit at one of the small tables in the bakery. Macy (Carolyn Ratteray) is from up north and pretty much the antithesis of everything Della holds dear, the most obvious defect being that Macy doesn’t eat cake – or do practically anything else good and enjoyable if her increasingly irritating list of what she does and doesn’t do, eat, or believe is to be taken as gospel.

Carolyn Ratteray (L) and Shannon Lucio. Photo: Darrett Sanders

Before too long, another young woman, Jen (Shannon Lucio) enters, to Della’s frenzied delight. Jen’s mother – who died five years prior – was Della’s best friend, and Jen’s been living up north much of the intervening time. While Jen and Della have been email pals – Della’s upset that Jen didn’t respond to her last email, the one with the cute cat video? – they haven’t seen each other in person for quite a while.

The big news is that Jen has come home to be married, which sends Della into another bout of jumping-about-praise-the-Lord ecstasy. Until, that is, she finds out Jen’s fiancée is that butterfat-abjuring pill named Macy, who not only doesn’t eat cake but is also… well, a God-fearing woman shouldn’t have to say the word.

What follows is a struggle of cake versus conscience: the reason the women came by the bakery was to ask Della – as the best baker in town but also as an old family friend – to make their wedding cake. But Della, nice though she is, and happy for Jen, finds herself torn, as she firmly believes her God wouldn’t want her to make such a cake. Flustered, she claims she’s just too busy – the wedding’s set for October, and what with Halloween and all those pumpkin pastries, she’s overextended, y’know?

The excuse doesn’t fool anyone, including Della, and the rest of this intermissionless 90-minute play documents Della’s struggle to square her feelings with her beliefs, as well as the lesbian couple’s wrestling to decipher what they’re doing in Winston-Salem in the first place: why has Jen insisted on bringing Macy, who is African-American as well as queer, from their beloved Brooklyn to a place where what should be their joyous act of marrying is destined to be fraught with overtones of hostility?

Ms Rupp gives a bravura performance as Della, nailing every laugh in the script – and there are many – while managing to bring additional hilarity to lines, pauses, and looks which in another actress’s hands would merely be filler. At the same time, subtly and with nuance, she shows us the genuine internal struggle mashing up Della’s insides. She never asks for our sympathy – Della may make sophisticated cakes but she’s a cracker – but nevertheless manages to make a woman who could be hateful instead complex and empathetic.

Joe Hart and Debra Jo Rupp. Photo: Darrett Sanders

Joe Hart as Della’s husband Tim is an excellent foil. Tim’s a plumber who loves Della, but his sense of inadequacy has caused strain in the marriage, not to mention his expulsions of gas in the bedroom stink so much they could scare a buzzard off a gut wagon. As a “traditional” husband, he counts on his wife to make his meals, though he himself experiments with food at one point: trust me, after seeing this, you’ll think twice before stabbing a fork into your next pile of mashed potatoes.

Also fine is Morrison Keddie as George, whom we don’t actually see until the curtain call, but whom we hear throughout as the smarmy host of a reality-TV baking program which Della has long dreamed of winning. The flashes of Della appearing on the show (nicely lit, as is the rest, by Pablo Santiago), with George’s booming voice taunting her and egging her on, initially seem to be fantasies but apparently are her actual appearances: whichever, they’re imaginative and funny and well-played, and lend a surreal touch to what at times can be a somewhat didactic exercise.

Carolyn Ratteray (L) and Shannon Lucio. Photo: Darrett Sanders

And that’s my real quibble: the characters played by Ms Lucio and especially Ms Ratteray are less characters than constructs, created to populate a preconceived agitprop agenda. In the first scene, Macy’s catalog of quirks and idiosyncrasies is so comprehensive we find ourselves wondering if she does anything normal: she’s so annoying I wouldn’t make her a cake myself, just on principle. And Jen’s motivations for coming back to North Carolina to wed – constantly and querulously challenged by Macy – don’t really make much sense, though they do conveniently lead to lots of tears. While the actresses struggle valiantly – if at times a touch inaudibly – it’s not easy to play characters credibly who are more cardboard than flesh.

Carolyn Ratteray (L) and Debra Jo Rupp. Photo: Darrett Sanders

At the end of an emotional scene near the end of the play, Jen asks Della what she thinks her mother would have felt about the wedding. Della quietly replies that it “would break her heart,” which sends Jen off in tears. Yet, shortly after, in the final scene, we learn Della has indeed made the wedding cake. We find this out because Macy – Della’s sworn enemy to that point – has left the reception and come to the bakery, bearing a piece of the cake, which Della insists she try. One bite, and Macy’s hooked, a look of bliss on her face, and the curtain comes down on the two former adversaries bonding over sugar and fat. It’s a cute ending, but feels schematic and unearned: apparently all Macy really needed to be “normal” was to meet a good cake!

Debra Jo Rupp. Photo: Darrett Sanders

Quibbles aside, Ms Brunstetter’s play, like a sinful dessert, provides lots of pleasure, and Jennifer Chambers’s direction makes the most of it. In addition to Mr. Santiago’s lighting, the set by Pete Hickok and costumes by Elena Flores make valuable contributions, and the cakes by Kaleb King, Kellie Haggett, and Elena Calderon look scrumptious. If, in the end, the evening isn’t as completely satisfying as we might wish, it offers plenty to chew on nonetheless. And then there’s Ms Rupp’s performance – truly the icing on the cake.

The Cake
Written by Bekah Brunstetter
Directed by Jennifer Chambers

Through August 6

Echo Theater Company
Atwater Village Theatre
3269 Casitas Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90039

Tickets: 310-307-3753 or visit www.EchoTheaterCompany.com


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