Daniel’s Husband is one of those plays where, halfway through, something so unexpected, plot-altering, and tone-shifting happens that it just can’t be revealed. Michael McKeever’s comedy-drama about the still-new era of gay marriage is cleft in two—part one: comedy, part two: drama—and both halves are effective, if you’re willing to accept some questionable behavior on the part of the title character.
That’s Mitchell (Matthew Montelongo), a successful writer of gay prose for the fictional Lavender Press. He has written serious, introspective things, but he makes the bucks, he admits, as a “21st-century gay version of Barbara Cartland.” In this he’s aided by his agent and best friend, Barry (Lou Liberatore), a fortysomething hedonist with an appetite for men two decades younger. The current object of his affection is Trip (Leland Wheeler), a pleasant young home health-care worker who certainly never heard of Barbara Cartland.
The play unfolds at a dinner party thrown by Mitchell and Daniel (Ryan Spahn), and Mitchell most pointedly is not Daniel’s husband, though they’ve been a couple for seven years. Their impeccable living room (Brian Prather did the attractive set), which sure looks like Palm Springs mid-century, though the text is nonspecific on this, surprisingly has no art on the gorgeous rear wall, and we soon find out why: The room is dominated by an unseen painting on the opposite (fourth) wall by Daniel’s late father, an artist who aspired to Jackson Pollock greatness and never quite made it. He and Daniel had a complicated relationship, which comes into play later. But first, cue the gay small talk, which McKeever makes appropriately smart and character-defining. He knows how to earn a laugh with a canny pop culture reference, and he gracefully throws a lot of issues on the table, such as straight-parent-gay-child relationships, intergenerational dating, and, most of all, gay marriage: for or against?
As this is 2017, and Daniel’s Husband is nothing if not up-to-the-minute, most everybody onstage is for it, including Daniel’s visiting mother, Lydia (Anna Holbrook)—a stylish, ebullient, wealthy, and, at first glance, ideal mom who regards Mitchell as her other son and enthuses that “gay sons are the best.” But warm fuzzies about same-sex marriage don’t extend to Mitchell, one of those gay men who considers straight marriage the antiquated product of financial exploitation and religious narrowmindedness, and wonders why the gay community would embrace such a flawed heterosexual model. McKeever gives Mitchell several remarks and a full speech about it, and Mitchell, as forcefully acted by Montelongo, is so convincing you may temporarily be won over to his side, if you’re not there already. It’s a rising conflict for this seemingly perfect couple, and Daniel, pleading for a wedding, even has to utter the unplayable line, “Can’t you see how much this means to me?”
But then, whap, Something Happens, and we’re left to recalculate everything. Mitchell’s responsibilities increase, he and Lydia are pitched into a blistering battle, lawyers are dragged in, and what began as a chatty comedy with mild social comment is suddenly a tear-inducing drama (there were plenty of sniffles around me). It’s two short, quite different plays crammed into one.
Melding the two is a substantial challenge for director Joe Brancato, and he does very well, aided by a cast that knows when to turn up the heat for the big moments and when to tone it down. Holbrook is superb, conveying Lydia’s loneliness, unspoken preconceptions about people, and overzealous maternal instincts. When, late in the action, her character declares, “There is no villain in this,” you can see why she’d believe that and even empathize with her a little. Liberatore brings a lot of color to Barry—not always likable or mature, but a good friend who knows how to be supportive. Wheeler exudes charm, and Spahn has a matter-of-factness that avoids overselling the extreme circumstances in which Daniel finds himself at different stages.
It’s Mitchell’s journey that might raise questions of credibility. It spite of Montelongo’s excellent performance, it’s hard not to wonder: Would this man, accustomed to a comfortable, low-conflict lifestyle, display the valor, fidelity, and energy McKeever invests in him?
As the story flashes back at the end, somewhat predictably, to Daniel’s and Mitchell’s first date, Daniel assures Mitchell that they’re going to be the loves of each other’s lives, and they’re going to get married—a large promise, given that it’s 2010 and nobody’s marrying anybody yet, outside of New Hampshire and Vermont. It feels like McKeever is twisting the narrative to push the audience’s buttons. He pushes them very effectively, though, and presents a portrait of what true love looks like that’s so appealing, we’re willing to sweep aside some logic to believe in it.
Daniel’s Husband runs through April 28 at the Cherry Lane Theatre, 38 Commerce St. Evening performances are at 8 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday; matinees are at 3 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $72. To purchase them, visit ovationtix.com.