Gentle humor helps ‘The Cake’ to go down easy


Karen MacDonald, Chelsea Diehl and Kris Sidberry in “The Cake.” Photo: Mark S. Howard

BOSTON – When dealing with thorny issues, you can rely on great good humor to help you say what you want to say.

With “The Cake,” playwright  Bekah Brunstetter  has taken on an issue that first erupted in the news in 2012, when a Colorado baker refused to make a cake for a same-sex couple, sparking a series of court battles that went all to the way to the Supreme Court.

Here, Brunstetter has chosen to file away the sharp edges of the legal issues and instead focus on the moral and personal  question: What does it mean when you stick with your strongly-held beliefs, even if they hurt or are in conflict with someone you love?

When we first meet Della (Karen MacDonald), the owner of a one-woman North Carolina bakery shop called Della’s Sweets, she is waxing poetic about the joys of making a cake and “following the directions”: Cue the flashbacks of Jessie Mueller crafting her pies in ART’s “Waitress.”  

When an attractive young African-American woman named Macy (Kris Sidberry) enters the bakery, she strikes up a  conversation and begins to take notes.  The conversation is warm and genial although it quickly becomes apparent the two are operating from opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to, well … just about everything, and most certainly the worth of butter and sugar.

Della is surprised by the entrance of Jen (Chelsea Diehl),  whom she has not seen in years and whom Della regards as a godchild. When Jen, who is now in her early 30’s tells Della she is going to be married soon, Della asks what “his” name is. “His” name, of course, is Macy and Jen is hopeful Della will make their wedding cake.

Fred Sullivan Jr. and Karen MacDonald in “The Cake.” Photo: Mark S. Howard

After reattaching her dropped jaw, and consulting with her schedule book, Della — as Jen’s face sags — finds she is “too busy” in October to make the couple’s cake. The fallout from Della’s decision and her own self-examination are the nexus of the piece

Brunstetter has framed “The Cake” around her own personal experiences growing up and going to college in North Carolina, and having many people in her life and her family who are like Della. It was born from her frustration at seeing how they  were being often portrayed and perceived in the media.

But that, she asserted in an interview, doesn’t mean she supports or sides with Della’s values; she sees “The Cake” as a way to challenge and debate Della’s views.

The casting by director Courtney O’Connor, Lyric’s associate artistic director, is pitch-perfect, starting with the redoubtable MacDonald, who built a lengthy resume at the American Repertory Theater before becoming a free agent and lending her considerable talents to theaters all across Eastern Massachusetts,

She is a local treasure and her superb comedic chops are  on full display with  some hilarious dream sequences that have the heavy-breathing Della interacting with the unseen, hunky British host of the upcoming TV cooking show she is slated to participate in, “The Big American Bake-Off.” The host, voiced by actor Daniel Berger-Jones, may indeed have a real-life doppelganger in Paul Hollywood, a celebrity chef and judge on the BBC program “The Great British Bake-Off.”

Fred Sullivan Jr., another local treasure with nonpareil comic chops,  is Della’s husband Tim, a plumber plodding along through life but secure in his beliefs, who raises Della’s ire when he outright forbids her to bake the cake.

There are two scenes – no spoilers here – in which both MacDonald and Sullivan go all in and then some and show themselves to be good sports.  

Diehl’s Jen and Sidberry’s Macy ring true in their scenes together. Jen is torn between the comforts and memories of her years growing up – including a poignant scene when she decides to leave Macy’s bedroom when they are staying with Jen’s family member, to respect the family’s values – and her new life with Macy. Sidberry’s Macy has a vibe that is more hip and cosmopolitan and she struggles to understand why Jen would still care about a woman who would deny their very relationship

Kudos to set designer Matt Whiton, who shoehorns a well-appointed and detailed bake shop into the intimate Lyric Stage theater, while also managing to situate bedrooms above the set both stage left and stage right.

Brunstetter never lets Della off the hook. There will be a reckoning and hard decisions will have to be made. But she also wants to remind us that people can and do change, and that reaching out to someone very different from you can start them on that path to change.

The Lyric Stage Company of Boston production of “The Cake.” Written by Bekah Brunstetter. Directed by Courtney O’Connor. At the Lyric Stage Company of Boston through Feb. 9.

Chelsea Diehl and Kris Sidberry in “The Cake.” Photo: Mark S. Howard