In her new off-Broadway dramedy, “The Cake,” playwright Bekah Brunstetter challenges audiences to empathize with an unlikely protagonist ― in this case, a conservative Christian baker deciding whether to accommodate a same-sex couple’s wedding in spite of her faith.
Such a proposition, while uncomfortable, is nonetheless topical given the ongoing political discourse over “religious liberty” laws. Directed by Lynne Meadow, “The Cake” follows Della (played by Debra Jo Rupp), the owner of a North Carolina bakery who has been selected as a contestant on “The Great American Baking Show.’’
Shortly before Della’s culinary prowess is to receive national attention, her shop is visited by a mixed-race, same-sex couple, Jen (Genevieve Angelson) and Macy (Marinda Anderson), who are scouting vendors for their upcoming wedding. (Catch a sneak peek at the show in the video above.)
Della declines to provide the couple’s wedding cake immediately, but her refusal is complicated by the fact that Jen is the daughter of her best friend, who died some five years earlier. The situation prompts the baker to re-examine not only her views on LGBTQ rights, but also her staid relationship with her husband, Tim (Dan Daily).
The Manhattan Theatre Club’s production of “The Cake,” which opened Tuesday at New York City Center, arrives less than a year after the Supreme Court sided with a Colorado baker who because of his faith had rejected a same-sex couple’s request for a custom wedding cake.
Brunstetter, who is a writer and producer on the NBC smash “This Is Us,” told HuffPost she followed the Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission case “religiously” in the news. She even befriended the mother of Charlie Craig, one of the men who initially sued the bakery for discrimination. Still, she chose to avoid references to it in “The Cake,” the first draft of which she began writing in 2015, well before the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case.
Hence, Brunstetter saw “The Cake” as a creative way to reconcile the Southern values of her youth with the more progressive views with which she’s surrounded herself in adulthood, as opposed to offering an overt political message.
“I started to feel torn between those two worlds, because I have an empathy for my family and the people from where I come from,” said the North Carolina-born playwright and screenwriter, who currently resides in Los Angeles. “I decided to stop feeling ashamed of it and to try and write about it, because I always end up writing about the parts of myself I’m scared of, or the things about myself that I find uncomfortable.”
Though Brunstetter knew urban-dwelling theatergoers would be more likely to identify with Jen and Macy, she was also adamant that the story be told from Della’s perspective.
“I wanted to put a conservative person at the forefront of the play,” she said. The result, she felt, “doesn’t necessarily condone their values, but shows how it is possible to change in a tiny, human way.”
Of course, Brunstetter couldn’t avoid the strain of America’s political divide entirely. In fact, the play had its first Manhattan Theatre Club reading just days after President Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 election.
For her part, Rupp said she took the election results “really hard,” even though the news ultimately boosted her interest in the project.
The actress, beloved for her roles on “That ’70s Show” and “Friends,” said playing Della “pulled me out of” a postelection funk. “I felt like, ‘OK, you know what? I can do my part by doing this play,’” she recalled. “I really felt like, in a very small way, I’m doing my part in something.”
And Rupp, who has played Della in two Los Angeles productions and at Barrington Stage Company in Massachusetts prior to the New York engagement, told HuffPost she believes “The Cake” has affected audience members on both sides of the religious liberty argument.
“Sunday matinees ― that’s the Della audience,” she said. “It’s an older audience, usually, and they’re all on Della’s side; they really identify with her. Then [at other performances] there are younger people who don’t want to like Della at all, and it’s a challenge to get them onboard.”
One scene in “The Cake” that may surprise viewers is its bittersweet conclusion. Brunstetter, who is in the early stages of adapting her play for the screen, said she was initially inclined to end it on a more forward-thinking note. However, she wound up revising the final scene so it would feel “way more real, and because of that, more encouraging.”
“The play is meant to be a space where people can come together,” she said. “So my hope and dream for it was always that those two different groups of people could find something in the play to relate to.”
The Manhattan Theatre Club’s production of “The Cake” plays New York City Center through March 30.