By Stanford Friedman
In Michael McKeever’s new play, Daniel’s Husband, Daniel does not have a husband, at least not in the legal sense. That is only a minor spoiler. There is a major spoiler, which I’ll do my best to circumvent, that comes halfway into the evening and which transforms this light dramedy into a bleak and angry soap opera cum public service announcement. Still, the production is impeccably acted and perfectly paced, so one cannot help but be drawn into the dark action.
What Daniel (Ryan Spahn) does have is a successful career as an architect, a large home, a devoted partner of seven years named Mitchell (Matthew Montelongo), and a scheming, self-involved mother, Lynda (Daytime Emmy winner, Anna Holbrook). As the play begins, we find ourselves in familiar territory, the gay dinner party (see The Boys in The Band, Love! Valour! Compassion!, etc.). Daniel and Mitchell are entertaining their friend Barry (Lou Liberatore), and Barry’s latest, age-inappropriate boy toy, Trip (Leland Wheeler). Doing their best to avoid politics, the zingers and the character exposition flow faster with every glass of wine. Mitchell, it turns out, is a successful author who has had to do a little dumbing down in his writing to achieve success. His breakthrough hit, hilariously, is entitled Rainbow Joe. Barry is his agent, who, of course, drinks too much in addition to his questionable habit of dating younger men. When Trip reveals he is a home healthcare professional, it is a piece of ominous foreshadowing that is easily overlooked. Wearing soft pastels, and enjoying crème brûlée, these men seem to exist in a world far removed from illness.
The primary bone of contention between Daniel and Mitchell involves their marital status. Daniel longs to put a ring on it, cross the T’s and dot the I do’s. It’s a right they have earned. Mitchell, though, sees marriage as an antiquated ritual, an admission of their averageness. This argument, archaic institution versus long-sought victory, has been on the mainstream radar at least as far back as 2013 when The New York Times ran a piece entitled “Gay Couples, Choosing to Say ‘I Don’t’” but it’s a pretty new piece of on-stage fodder and would have made for a thoughtful night of intellectual contemplation. However, the playwright takes a sharp turn that leaves Daniel’s fate in doubt and radically changes the conversation.
Lydia, in a keenly sculpted performance of icy detachment by Ms. Holbrook, wants back what is left of her son in the worst way. Litigation ensues. Mitchell wants a miracle, and a second chance. When sorrow finally overtakes him, Mr. Montelongo surrenders his character’s inner strength for a powerful outpouring of grief. As Daniel, Mr. Spahn underplays his dilemmas, romantic and otherwise, to fine effect. Mr. Liberatore brings a warm humanity to Barry, saving the character from being mere plot device. And while it makes little sense that Trip reappears in a crucial role after being dumped by Barry, newcomer Mr. Wheeler makes us glad to see him. Director Joe Brancato keeps what could have been a runaway train on the rails, showing a deft comic touch at the start, and painting an ending that is melancholy without being maudlin. Brian Prather’s set reflects the “perfectly appointed home” called for in the script, but is fairly bland for a dwelling occupied by two creative types, with a large sofa stuck center stage.
Ultimately we are left with several unsettling questions to ponder. Whatever message the playwright was hoping to bring to the surface gets muddied by the results of these characters’ actions, or the lack thereof.
Daniel’s Husband – By Michael McKeever; directed by Joe Brancato.
WITH: Anna Holbrook (Lydia), Lou Liberatore (Barry), Matthew Montelongo (Mitchell), Ryan Spahn (Daniel), and Leland Wheeler (Trip).
Set design by Brian Prather; costumes by Jennifer Caprio; lighting by Christina Watanabe; Michael Palmer, production stage manager. Presented by Primary Stages and Ted Snowdon at the Cherry Lane Theatre, 38 Commerce Street, 866-811-4111, http://primarystages.org/shows/current-season/daniels-husband/. Through April 28. Running Time: 90 minutes.