The continued non-UK appearance of Jeremy O Harris’s colossally acclaimed, prodigiously talked-about 2019 Broadway smash ‘Slave Play’ is one of the great theatrical mysteries of modern times. But perhaps it’s good that ‘“Daddy”: A Melodrama’ – his first play to be written, but second to be staged – has come here first. Because while I can kind of see why it received less warm notices across the Pond than its (sort of) predecessor, as an initial taste of Harris’s writing it’s so fizzingly original that it’s hard to be particularly aggrieved that it goes on a bit towards the end.
Sweet but troubled Franklin (Terique Jarrett) is a young Black artist who we first meet high as a kite at the poolside of the lavish LA apartment of Andre (Claes Bang), an assured, extremely minted British art collector whom Franklin has just met in a club.
For its first half, Danya Taymor’s production surges away as a whip-smart interrogation of personal and artistic integrity. Franklin dives headlong into the luxury new life afforded to him by Andre’s wealth. But he’s also troubled at what his lover’s patronage means for both the integrity of his work and the way he’s perceived in the art world (as represented by Jenny Rainsford’s cheerily cynical gallery curator Alessia).
The tone remains fairly light, largely due to Franklin being allowed to bring his BFFs along to the mansion: Max (John McCrea), is a pale, perceptive, waspish gay guy who embodies Frankin’s creeping doubts; Bellamy (Ioanna Kimbook) is a hysterically shallow – if thoroughly good-natured – hetero woman who is awestruck at Franklin’s sugar daddy and looking to bag one of her own. You could possibly say one was the angel at his shoulder and the other the devil, although it’s not entirely clear which is which.
And then there’s Andre. It’s clear that under all the razzle-dazzle and wild power imbalance there is a sort of meeting of minds occurring between him and Franklin. For starters, they both love art, albeit for wildly different reasons. But the two settle down to a rhythm in which Bang’s dominant, somewhat detached Andre is ‘Daddy’ and Jarrett’s sweet but troubled Franklin is ‘Son’. The fact they very clearly embody more complicated yearnings in each other than the merely sexual is magnificently underscored by the climax to the first half, a fantasy sequence in which Andre serenades Franklin with a rendition of George Michael’s ‘Father Figure’. Backed up by the trio of gospel singers who wander around the apartment unseen, it’s funny but also deeply weird: we experience the discombobulation that Franklin feels as he stares at us helplessly while the singing goes on and his friends frolic in the water, splashing the front rows of the audience (yes, Matt Saunders’s set features a real pool). It’s gloriously playful and strange: rock-solid storytelling and wet bodies meeting a wildly original hyperreal aesthetic.
Things shift drastically for the much darker second half, which is defined by the arrival of Franklin’s stern, god-fearing mother Zora (Sharlene Whyte). Though accepting of her son’s sexuality and surprisingly friendly with Bellamy and Max, she cannot stand Andre, who – perhaps inevitably – she says reminds her of Franklin’s long-absent dad. The whole play switches into a claustrophobic struggle to fill the father-shaped void in Franklin’s life, a battle between Zora, Andre and Franklin’s own artworks – creepy dolls meant to express elements of himself, that become larger and larger in scale until a trio of them form a sort of eerie, human-size shadow ‘family’ at the back of the stager. If ‘“Daddy”‘ never quite descends into full-on horror, it comes surprisingly close, with echoes of everything from Buñuel to Pinter as the play builds to a nightmarish wedding-scene climax.
Having kept the story in motion with such thrillingly strange vigour, neither Harris nor Taymor manage to nail a killer ending to ‘“Daddy”’, which wraps up with a protracted further exploration of the fact Franklin has daddy issues that drags, fussily restating and underscoring points we already got. The play’s arch self-awareness is one of its strengths, but at the end it feels like Harris is so desperate to be sure nobody has missed what he’s talking about that he brings ‘“Daddy”’ to a grinding halt when it might have worked better speeding mischievously into the sunset on a more ambiguous note. Still, a bit of heavy-handedness in a debut play can be forgiven when there’s so much invention elsewhere – ‘“Daddy”’ may not be perfect, but it is remarkable.