Ronald Peet and Charlayne Woodard in 'Daddy'
Ronald Peet and Charlayne Woodard in 'Daddy' © Monique Carboni

Jeremy O. Harris made his professional New York debut with Slave Play less than three months ago. Yet the playwright has already established a reputation for shocking the bourgeoisie thanks to that play’s graphic portrayal of antebellum plantation-themed master-slave fantasies.

His latest work covers similar territory with its exploration of a rather unbalanced relationship between Franklin (Ronald Peet), a young black American artist, and Andre (Alan Cumming), a middle-aged English collector, who describes the first painting he owned — a Degas given to him by his father — as “sort of a trifle”. As in Slave Play, there are plenty of raunchy high jinks. And there’s also an abundance of drug-fuelled debauchery amid the bland minimalist splendour of Andre’s Los Angeles mansion, which includes an onstage swimming pool.

But what’s most provocative about “Daddy” are the racial tensions evoked by Franklin’s first, sellout art show, which features a series of black rag dolls. His God-fearing mother Zora (Charlayne Woodard), already unimpressed by Franklin’s greying paramour, whom she dubs “Methuselah”, intimates that her son has debased himself by creating a kind of exotic carnival act for the gratification of “a room full of white folk walk[ing] around with little coon babies on their arms like they were Madonna or something”.

Meanwhile, Franklin’s faintly racist gallerist Alessia (Hari Nef) chortles that “We are finally pushing aside the white cis het blowhard art bros of the past.” Harris’s writing is most effective when skewering that kind of triumphant liberal condescension. And, like Slave Play, “Daddy” suggests in Joycean vein that American history is a nightmare from which there is little hope of awaking.

From left, Alan Cumming, Kahyun Kim and Tommy Dorfman
From left, Alan Cumming, Kahyun Kim and Tommy Dorfman © Monique Carboni

The main problem here is that Harris fails to give his biting social commentary enough theatrical focus — a weakness that also afflicted Slave Play. Both Franklin and Andre are too vapid and lacking in self-awareness to sustain our attention for close to three hours (with two intervals) in Danya Taymor’s staging, which fizzles out in a series of over-wrought speeches. Only Zora displays genuine psychological depth in Woodard’s understated portrayal. And the treatment of Franklin’s father complex ends up seeming too reductive and predictable to be truly shocking.

★★★☆☆

To March 31, vineyardtheatre.org

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