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'Daddy' review: Provocative drama in which souls and more are bared

From left front, Alan Cumming, Ronald Peet and

From left front, Alan Cumming, Ronald Peet and Charlayne Woodard, with, from left rear, Onyie Nwachukwu, Denise Manning and Carrie Compere, in "Daddy," by Jeremy O. Harris, directed by Danya Taymor, at Pershing Square Signature Center. Credit: Matt Saunders

WHAT "Daddy"

WHEN | WHERE Through March 31, Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 W. 42nd St. 

INFO From $40; 212-279-4200, thenewgroup.org

BOTTOM LINE A provocative "melodrama" from hot young playwright Jeremy O. Harris.

There are times when it’s best not to overthink a piece of theater. That's surely the case with "Daddy," the provocatively brilliant, or perhaps brilliantly provocative, new play by Jeremy O. Harris at the Pershing Square Signature Center in a joint production from The New Group and Vineyard Theatre.

Thoughts come at you like a meteor shower in this melodrama (Harris’ description) as it delves into so many issues it’s tough to summarize. The nature of queer relationships is key, as is a mother’s ability to accept her child’s choices and, most pointedly, the absence of a father figure. The rarefied world of art — you know, the Rauschenbergs, the Basquiats — comes under fire. Or maybe it's being celebrated.

At the heart of the story is Franklin (Ronald Peet), a young artist who's just been picked up by older and ridiculously wealthy art collector Andre (Alan Cumming). We first see them wearing the tiniest of Speedos in the pool that takes up much of Matt Saunders' Hockney-inspired Bel-Air villa set — drunk, high and devouring each other in increasingly kinky fashion. Soon even the swimsuits go, so if you’re uncomfortable with long periods of male nudity, this might not be the play for you. (And since we’re talking warnings, don’t expect to stay dry if you're seated in the front row. Towels are provided). 

Franklin's friends drift in and out, somewhat confused but happy to bask in his new lavish lifestyle. Eventually his mother (Charlayne Woodard) shows up, fully dressed in the middle of the pool, surrounded by a gospel choir (Franklin's "forgotten heart and soul," per the script). She’s ostensibly come for the opening of his first show, but really this Bible-quoting mama bear wants to reclaim her son from the "haughty lovers of pleasure."

By the third act (this clocks in at just under three hours), it’s all getting surreal and venturing into performance art. Director Danya Taymor simply lets her impeccable cast roll with it, but then there's not much else to do with a playwright like Harris. Still in his final year at Yale School of Drama, Harris is clearly having a moment. His recent "Slave Play" at New York Theater Workshop got glowing reviews, his work has received some big-deal awards and he’s been featured in recent spreads in Vanity Fair and Vogue.

It's tempting to wonder how much of this play comes from Harris' own life experiences, but I read that, above all, Harris hoped to write a play his mother would like. If only we could ask her what she thought.

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