Saturday, April 8, 2017

168. Review: DANIEL'S HUSBAND (seen April 7, 2017)

"The Marrying Kind"

So. Here’s the thing, as one of the characters in Michael McKeever’s Daniel’s Husband is wont to say. Imagine you’re a playwright and are preoccupied with the pros and cons of gay marriage. Perhaps you think all gay couples should say “I do.” Or maybe you’ve got doubts, and think true love is more important than a gold band.  So why not create a play with a couple representing both sides of the question and see where it leads?
Ryan Spahn, Lou Liberatore, Leland Wheeler, Matthew Montelongo. Photo: James Leynse.
Which is what McKeever seems to have attempted in his drawing room comedy cum Lifetime soap opera, a Primary Stages production at the Cherry Lane, first seen last year at the Penguin Rep in Stony Point, New York. The play, trenchantly directed by Joe Brancato, received a rousing reception the night I went but, for all its pleasantries and the inherent interest of its subject, its by-the-numbers contrivances in order to make a point left me numb. 
Ryan Spahn, Matthew Montelongo. Photo: James Leynse.
First up is the drawing room comedy, set in the upscale, tastefully appointed apartment (classily, if blandly, designed by Brian Prather and well-lit by Christina Watanabe) of successful architect Daniel Bixby (Ryan Spahn, quietly appealing). Daniel lives here with his devoted partner of seven years, Mitchell Howard (Matthew Montelongo, deeply committed), a best-selling author of gay-oriented romantic novels in the Barbara Cartland tradition. 

A party’s in session with two guests, Mitchell’s agent, Barry Dylon (Lou Liberatore, charmingly affectionate), close friend to both men, and Barry’s latest squeeze, Trip (Leland Wheeler, convincingly gauche). Trip, at 23, is more than twice as young as Barry, whose preference for youthful lovers offers food for laughs. Trip, in one of the play’s formulaic devices (although I won’t say why), is an in-home health-care specialist; Barry insists on calling him a nurse.

As they drink wine and eat Daniel’s crème brûlée , the men engage in amusing, familiarly gay-slanted, comic repartee, much of it stimulated by a game where you have to choose one of two alternatives, like “jelly beans or gummy bears?,” “Anderson Cooper or Don Lemon?,” the latter, of course, referring to their “hotness,” not their journalistic talents. Music is played on a turntable, allowing us to chortle at the child-like Trip’s excitement over holding an LP album in his hands for the very first time (if you can believe it).
Matthew Montelongo, Leland Wheeler. Photo: James Leynse.
When Trip wonders why his hosts, with their seemingly perfect relationship, aren’t married, the tension begins to escalate. Regardless of Daniel’s strong desire to wed, Mitchell feels compelled to defend his antagonism for the very institution of marriage, gay or straight, considering it antiquated and archaic; he also argues that, as a gay man, he has no interest in following the normative path created by heterosexuals. You perk up your ears for his unconventional, provocative take on something most people take for granted.
Anna Holbrook, Matthew Montelongo, Lou Liberatore. Photo: James Leynse.
Soon after, we meet Lydia (Anna Holbrook, convincingly controlling), Daniel’s mother, a wealthy, fashionable, bottle-blond in the Blythe Danner mold, who flies in to visit her son, whose gayness she not only accepts but welcomes. Her eccentricities get some laughs but she and Daniel have a strained relationship. Partly this is because she despises and he admires his late father, an artist whose angry painting is imagined to be staring down on Daniel’s apartment; partly it's because he considers her too self-centered. Later, Mitchell asserts that Daniel hates Lydia, but, as acted, Daniel’s feelings seem more like frustrated annoyance, such as most of us feel in such circumstances, than something as profound as hate.
Matthew Montelongo. Photo: James Leynse.
Then, about midway through, as Daniel and Mitchell are again arguing about marriage, the gods of melodrama throw down their gauntlet. While I have to refrain from giving too much away, I’ll say that the comedy all but shrivels up, and for those so inclined, tears flow. What might have made for an interesting debate about gay marriage devolves into dramaturgic schmaltz in which Mitchell and Daniel’s relationship becomes involved in litigious matters that a little foresight could easily have resolved. Perhaps unmarried gay couples will learn something from all this.
Ryan Spahn. Photo: James Leynse.
If you’re willing to accept the fortuitous event that alters the course of these otherwise blessed characters’ lives as inevitable, you’ll probably find Daniel’s Husband deeply moving. On the other hand, if you see that life-changing occurrence as a playwright’s didactic contrivance, you may be unable to buy any of it at all. Which will it be: jelly beans or gummy bears?


Cherry Lane Theatre
38 Commerce St., NYC
Through April 28