A disclaimer: if you have a ticket for daddy, I’d recommend closing this review now. Plenty has already been written about the play by buzzy playwright Jeremy O Harris. But daddy is a masterpiece that doesn’t so much pull the rug from under you as yank it, then stick around to laugh at you lying on the floor, dazed and bewildered. Trust me: this is a show enhanced by a lack of expectations.
Harris’s play is subtitled as “a melodrama” – emphasis on the drama. At the center is the relationship between Franklin (Terique Jarrett), a young Black artist, and Andre (Claes Bang), an older white art collector. From Matt Saunders’s set alone, you can tell that Andre is rich with a capital “R”. It’s one of those LA houses you see in Selling Sunset, all soulless monochrome panels and floor-to-ceiling sliding glass doors. The only color comes from the deep blue pool at the front of the stage and the modern art on the wall.
As the pair flirt at the beginning of the play, off their faces on pills, the power dynamics begin to show themselves. You can hear the audience grit their teeth when Andre calls him “my little Naomi” (as in Campbell), yet Franklin is not afraid to call his home from him “gauche”. When they kiss for the first time, tongues collide so aggressively that you could see them in space. It’s a flirtatious cat-and-mouse game, just one where the mouse ends up sprawled on the cat’s knee, being spanked with a slipper and calling him “daddy”.
If the Freud fodder didn’t make it clear, Harris’s play is undeniably provocative. Full-frontal nudity and casual drug taking are introduced from the get-go; racial slurs are spat by the Black and white cast members. But this is not shock for shock’s sake. Every element has been punctiliously designed to raise questions, whether about race, wealth, the media or the state of modern art.
Danya Taymor’s production is overwhelming in the best way. No two lighting or sound cues are ever the same, leaving the audience deliciously on edge, unable to guess where things will head. A Greek chorus gospel choir harmonizes with iPhone ringtones. At one point, Bang whips out a glittery microphone and belts out a (slightly pitchy) rendition of George Michael’s “Father Figure”.
A universally strong ensemble surrounds Jarrett and Bang, characters who could be broad comedy archetypes – the bitchy art dealer, the phone-obsessed twentysomethings, the god-fearing mother. Yet there’s depth and self-awareness, Franklin’s friend Max (John McCrea) calling him out for casting him as “the supporting actor in your narcissistic wet dream”.
As the show progresses, things get darker. Franklin descends further into his childlike state, his face switching from nervousness to delight but his thumb-sucking remaining. Around him, things begin to glitch. Sounds warp and distort and time jumps; characters move back and forth in singular motions, stuck in the Instagram Boomerang feature. The mix of comedy and discomfort will likely polarize audiences, but there’s no danger of you forgetting daddy.
‘Daddy’ runs at the Almeida Theater until 30 April
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.