‘Daddy’ Theater Review: Alan Cumming and Ronald Peet Discover Lust in a Bel-Air Pool

Regression and mutual exploitation are the hallmarks of an art-world affair in Jeremy O. Harris’ brilliant new play

“Daddy” picks up where “Slave Play” left off. Although critics aren’t supposed to say this, we might be living through a golden age of new American plays. Critics tend to identify a golden age 50 years after the fact. Here’s the scene today in New York City: In only a matter of months, Theresa Rebeck followed her “Bernhardt/Hamlet” with “Downstairs.” Jackie Sibblies Drury followed “Fairview” with the recently opened “Marys Seacole.” And Jeremy O. Harris followed last fall’s “Slave Play” with “Daddy,” which opened Tuesday at the Pershing Square Signature Center.

Mentioning these three playwrights isn’t meant to diminish the remarkable and substantial new works of so many others. It’s simply good news that the talented Rebeck, Drury and Harris are also prolific and have, in each case, improved on their previous work.

Harris’ “Slave Play” told the story of four interracial couples and how the master-slave dynamic of the antebellum South is recalled in each of those relationships. That’s a major simplification, but it sets the groundwork for “Daddy” and its depiction of an affair between a white, middle-aged, wealthy art collector (Alan Cumming) and a black, young, financially struggling artist (Ronald Peet, “The Meyerowitz Stories”).

Even before “Daddy” begins, set designer Matt Saunders’s rendition of a Bel-Air manse and pool mesmerizes. Cumming’s Andre lives in a house that melds David Hockney’s “Beverly Hills Housewife” to his “Portrait of an Artist (Pool With Two Figures).” And just like those two Hockneys, Saunders’ set under Isabella Byrd’s lighting suggests something unhealthy grows beneath all that California glare.

There’s a Twombly hanging on the wall in the hallway beyond the pool. Even more impressive, or so Peet’s Franklin tells us, is the master bedroom that’s chock-full of Basquiats. Franklin wonders aloud how someone with so much art on his walls could have so little taste. For most art collectors, that remark would be a deal breaker if not for the fact that Andre is very horny and Franklin is very needy in ways that go far beyond his being young and ambitious.

Soon, Andre is calling Franklin “my little Naomi” (Franklin’s legs remind him of Naomi Campbell’s) and Franklin is calling Andre “Daddy.” Suffice to say, those pet names are what’s most printable of what transpires between the two men in this very graphic play.

Harris stacks “Daddy” against one character, only to reverse or level the playing field in the next scene. No sooner has Franklin taken up residence in Bel-Air than he invites two young friends, Bellamy (Kahyun Kim, “American Gods”) and Max (Tommy Dorfman, “13 Reasons Why”), to enjoy Andre’s pool and sushi. Thanks to Harris’ gift for comedy, it’s side-splittingly clear that the wealthy aren’t the only exploiters in town. To be young and attractive is a commodity that many are very willing to sell despite admonitions of love.

Later in “Daddy,” we will meet the gallery owner Alessia (Hari Nef, “You”), who believes Franklin is the next big thing. Nef’s performance recalls Toni Collette’s art curator in the recent Netflix film “Velvet Buzzsaw,” only on steroids. “Daddy” and “Velvet Buzzsaw” cover the same L.A. art turf. The difference is, Harris has some very interesting things to say about aestheticism robbing art of its essence.

On the title page of the script, Harris calls his play “a melodrama.” Perhaps the word “tragedy” doesn’t apply because Franklin is so acted upon. The forces are against him to an overwhelming degree, and the true crux of the play is an epic battle between Andre and Franklin’s mother, Zora (Charlayne Woodard).

Andre holds his own against this maternal giant, who fights for her son’s soul and isn’t afraid to hit below the belt when she refers to Andre as Methuselah, among other nasty things. (In a remarkable performance, Cumming never loses his vampire cool.) As patriarchies go, however, Andre represents one system and Zora’s many prayers to “Our Father” represents another. LGBT children struggle with an existential dilemma: Blacks raise black children, Jews raise Jewish children, but heterosexuals raise homosexuals. No one’s teaching LGBT offspring how to behave in an alien world.

Zora’s rearing of Franklin has set the stage for his relationship with Andre, and during the course of this almost three-hour play, Peet’s performance takes this young man to a place that the Edward Albee of “The American Dream” would fully appreciate.

In addition to melodrama, Harris could add the description “fantasy” to his new play. Did I mention that “Daddy” includes a stirring gospel chorus (Carrie Compere, Denise Manning, and Onyie Nwachukwu in strong voice), two alternately hilarious and heartbreaking renditions of George Michael’s “Father Figure,” and grand moments of opera from Bellini, Strauss and Verdi?

Danya Taymor directs this magnificent hodgepodge of styles in a way that makes perfect sense even while we’re recovering from some absolutely startling new surprise. Taymor also has unerring taste in new playwrights. In the last year alone, she directed Antoinette Nwandau’s “Pass Over” and Martyna Majok’s “Queens.”

“Daddy” is a co-production of the New Group and the Vineyard Theatre.