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'Daddy' review: Alan Cumming leads superb cast in provocative 'melodrama'

Charlayne Woodard and Ronald Peet are transfixing alongside the British actor in a highly compelling production.

From left front, Alan Cumming, Ronald Peet and

From left front, Alan Cumming, Ronald Peet and Charlayne Woodard in "Daddy," by Jeremy O. Harris at Pershing Square Signature Center. Photo Credit: Matt Saunders

'Daddy' runs through March 31 at the Pershing Square Signature Center. 480 W. 42nd St., thenewgroup.org.

A devoutly religious African-American mother engages in a ferocious battle with a wealthy European art collector over the soul of her gay son in "Daddy," an over-the-top and overwritten yet smart and gripping self-described “melodrama” by Jeremy O. Harris. The breakout playwriting student at the Yale School of Drama recently shocked Off-Broadway audiences with the provocative and freewheeling “Slave Play.”

Running approximately three hours in three acts, “Daddy” is a lavish Off-Broadway coproduction between the New Group and Vineyard Theatre featuring an exceptional cast (including Alan Cumming, Ronald Peet and Charlayne Woodard) and precise direction by Danya Taymor (“Pass Over”) — not to mention a three-female gospel choir, full-frontal nudity and an exorcism/baptism by water.

As it begins, Franklin (Peet) is checking out Andre’s (Cumming) stylish Bel Air estate after meeting him at a club. A promising visual artist with an upcoming debut show, Franklin is invited to move in and feted with expensive gifts by Andre, who Franklin refers to as “Daddy.”

After ignoring her numerous voicemail messages, Franklin's mother Zora (Woodard) finally comes to visit and is immediately disturbed by Andre (who she refers to as “Methuselah”), convinced that there are sinister qualities behind his polite and debonair behavior and that her son has entered the Devil’s lair.

All the while, Franklin undergoes extreme changes not just with his artwork but also his behavior, devolving from a smart and opinionated adult to a needy teen and child. Most disturbingly, Franklin is often seen sucking his thumb in a fetal position.

The final act is the weakest, relying on confessional monologues and finishing on an anticlimactic, unresolved note. But for the most part, "Daddy" (a title which Harris intended to be in quotes) makes for highly compelling theater, exploring (as in “Slave Play”) issues of race, sexual identity and contemporary art while remaining grounded in a dramatic power struggle.

Peet impressively undergoes extreme changes in his behavior throughout the play, while Cumming is cool, enigmatic and unpredictable. However, the most stunning performance comes from Woodard, who displays the authoritative stature to challenge the intoxicating luxuries that have possessed her son.

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