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'The Cake' returns to L.A., and Debra Jo Rupp is once again the icing

'The Cake' returns to L.A., and Debra Jo Rupp is once again the icing
Debra Jo Rupp stars in the Geffen Playhouse production of "The Cake," written by Bekah Brunstetter and directed by Jennifer Chambers. (Chris Whitaker)

Playwright Bekah Brunstetter’s “The Cake” was inspired by news reports about businesses that objected on religious grounds to providing their goods and services to gay couples who were getting married.

Brunstetter, a writer and producer on the hit NBC series “This Is Us,” centers her play on a Christian baker in North Carolina who refuses to bake a wedding cake for the daughter of her late best friend after learning that one of her frosted masterpieces would be served at the celebration of a lesbian union. If the story sounds familiar, it’s because the Supreme Court decided a similar case this year.

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Brunstetter began “The Cake” long before the Supreme Court decided to hear Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission. Her play doesn’t venture anywhere near a courthouse, but it does touch on some of the cultural issues that make these legal battles so vexing to sort out.

I invited two lawyers who were instrumental in the marriage equality campaign to join me for this reprise of the Echo Theater Company production of “The Cake” at the Geffen Playhouse’s Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater. But our conversation after the show was more focused on plot than precedent.

The long family history between Della (a sparkling Debra Jo Rupp, best known for her role on “That ’70s Show”) and Jen (Shannon Lucio) transforms a purely economic transaction into an emotionally fraught personal encounter. Della is the proud owner of a bakery in Winston-Salem. Jen, a native North Carolinian with the twang to prove it, is about to tie the knot with Macy (Carolyn Ratteray), who seems to have been shipped special delivery from the blue state bridal catalog.

Jen still feels so connected to her hometown that she has decided to have her wedding at the same place her parents were married. But her life has changed dramatically in recent years. Meeting Macy has clarified that her numbed intimacy with men wasn’t a sign that she hadn’t found the right fellow. It was an indication that her true nature wasn’t heterosexual. Falling in love with Macy has revealed herself to herself.

The opening exchange between Macy and Della depicts with sitcom exaggeration the cultural gulf Jen is straddling. A Brooklyn-based African American writer (“Huffpo, Jezebel, Slate”), Macy doesn’t have much patience for tolerance. Empowered to the point of being occasionally confrontational, she arrives at the bakeshop before Jen and seems to be on a reconnaissance mission.

Della, whose fantasies about getting on “The Great American Baking Show” are enacted in dream-like sequences, spends more time quoting from her recipes than from the Bible. Macy’s gluten-free diet and wariness of sugar immediately mark her as a stranger in these comfort food part. But Della is a naturally chatty cake-maker who loves sharing the secrets of her trade.

After learning about Macy’s connection to Jen, Della seems genuinely pained about her decision not to bake the wedding cake. But as her husband, Tim (Rod McLachlan), reminds her, “We know we can’t pick and choose the Bible, honey.”

“The Cake” is a play for audiences who enjoy the safety of predictability. There’s a television quality to the dramedy, an artificial word for a play that has a slight store-bought flavor. The production, directed by Jennifer Chambers, is like cookies that taste great with a tall glass of milk — as long as you overlook the artificial ingredients on the side of the box.

What makes the drama noteworthy is the sympathetic light in which Della is portrayed. Nothing about “The Cake” suggests that the playwright has any issue with marriage equality. But Della, for all her provincial eccentricities, is never dismissed as a Bible-thumping hick. Compassionately drawn and portrayed, she’s simply having trouble reconciling her religious beliefs with her instinctive neighborliness.

The national culture has leaped ahead of her local values. But rather than flaring with righteous indignation, Rupp’s Della ripples with doubts and misgivings. We see her struggle. Jen is like family to her. It breaks her heart to break the young woman’s heart.

Most unexpectedly, Della’s encounter with a vibrant lesbian couple begins to release repressed feelings about her own sexless marriage. Della dares Tim to awaken their dormant intimacy. Their sensual fumbling, involving at one point a mountain of mashed potatoes, would be only slightly risqué for an episode of “Roseanne.” But the familiarity is deployed for a purpose.

The laughter humanizes Della and Tim for theatergoers who likely do not share their views. And for those who do, Della’s nervous questioning of religious orthodoxy is handled with extra-large oven mitts. Nothing too heretical is going to emerge from these comic proceedings. But opposing sides will be forced to deal with each other as slightly goofy, basically well-meaning people rather than as cardboard zealots.

“The Cake” would have been a stronger play had Brunstetter not turned Macy into a liberal cartoon. Jen has more contours and contradictions, but she doesn’t always come off as credible. Worse, Jen and Macy’s relationship feels like it was concocted in a writing laboratory far away from real LGBTQ lives. Even their qualms and quarrels have a painted-on quality.

Brunstetter resists a fairy-tale conclusion, but the ending isn’t earned. Della’s journey requires not just a leap of faith but the lobotomizing of disbelief. (Given that Della’s rejection of Jen and Macy has painful professional consequences, are we really to accept that her dashed dreams can be wiped up with a shrug like spilled milk?)

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Yet there’s something satisfyingly sweet about “The Cake.”

It’s no wonder Los Angeles is getting a second helping at the Geffen (after the play’s 2017 Atwater Village Theatre run) and that Manhattan Theatre Club has announced its own production (also starring Rupp) for next year.

At a time when the country is so bitterly polarized, is there any way to get people to stop talking past each other? Brunstetter affectionately caricatures all sides to get us to laugh together.

Hearts and minds are dug in. But the fizzy delight of Rupp’s performance is something we can all agree on.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

‘The Cake’

Where: Geffen Playhouse, Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater, 10886 Le Conte Ave., L.A.

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. End Oct. 21

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Tickets: $30.00 - $120

Information: (310) 208-5454 or www.geffenplayhouse.org

Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes

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