Review by Kathleen Campion
It would be wonderful if this play at the Mitzi Newhouse were as intriguing, or even as bizarre, as the title. It is not.
Here’s the story: Alan (John Benjamin Hickey), a successful middle-aged freelance writer, and Rob (Patrick Breen) a 50-something therapist with a thriving practice, have a good life, a long relationship, and a great apartment. Then, they have a child, a little girl, Nicola, who not only looks like Rob but seems to prefer him, which drives Alan to distraction. All in all, Alan would rather go back to the twosome they used to be.
The play opens at an exclusive restaurant, where Rob and Alan are meeting a set of younger gay dads, Scott (Stephen Plunkett) and Jason (Alex Hurt). Scott is a buttoned-up hedge-fund guy while his hot husband, Jason, is an artist who talks the daddy talk, but is, at best, agnostic on the joys of being a dad.
The conversation opens with the kids, as iPhones fly across the table. The kids are their reason for getting together. They all want to bond with others like themselves. The parental competition starts light: “Which pre-school is little xx in?” “Oh, too bad.” “Our son slept threw the night from the start.” But then it escalates: “Are you thinking of having another child?” “No!”
A third couple, Serena (Kellie Overbey) and Michael (John Pankow), are the straight foils. They serve to underscore the sameness of marriage and parenthood regardless of orientation. Overbey is cynically funny in her parenting. She offers to tell little Nicola a bedtime story that will make her head spin like the kid in The Exorcist. The other straight woman, Julia, the actress, is also funny. She too is in the throws of raising kids—one from his first marriage, one from her first marriage and one together. Playwright Peter Parnell gives her the play’s thematic through line. As Julia carelessly tosses off cliched remarks about gay men, in a lightly bitchy repartee with Alan at the playground, she wraps up with:
“And I thought it was women who were supposed to have it all. Turns out it’s you guys. Well, we’ll see what comes from that.”
Parnell’s characters are genuine and credible. The practiced actors, who drive them to the footlights, invite us to empathize. Director Scott Ellis seems to once again effortlessly tease thoughtful nuance out of stock situations. And, God knows, John Lee Beatty’s no slouch at setting the scene. The just-right sets slide in and out with precision and as many as seven different stylish venues are conjured in the abbreviated, neatly terraced stage. Lighting and sound are 5 x 5 as well.
And there are some wonderful moments. For example: John Pankow plays Michael the straight, philandering, best friend to Alan. Michael is a completely realized character; he’s a selfish prick suffering through his flop of a show. He’s not so much demanding as entitled to be nursed through his crushing defeat. So he has an affair with an actress. Pankow makes us know him, so that, when Michael strides into the restaurant and thoughtlessly takes Rob’s chair at the table, we are not so much surprised as knowingly amused, as though we’ve known him for years. The quality of the acting is not at fault—no one is less than terrific.
What’s more, there are a few moments of titillation that evoke the “old life” some of the characters enjoyed before the kids were part of the equation. And, it is a genuine pleasure to see all of Alex Hurt (Jason) heading for the outdoor shower at a Pines rental.
That said, watching gay men struggle with parenthood is not that interesting. The fact that the decision to have children is rarely informed by the actual consequences of having children is well documented. The notion that children change what had been a two-way into a three-four-or five-way relationship is not so much drama as arithmetic.
The fact that gay men become less interesting to an audience, as they do to each other–as the challenges of filing the right pre-school applications replace whatever had been their presumably more-interesting previous lives–may be too bad, but it is hardly a surprise. More to the point, it is neither entertaining nor enlightening.
Whatever team you are on, parents are a class unto themselves. With the arrival of children, they go into a period in which they are fit company only for one another, because they are wildly interested in the kid-driven sea change in their lives. If you are not raising kids or your kids are raised, you flee from these people, and they from you. (Not that there is anything wrong with that.)
So while there are truths told in Dada Woof Papa Hot—there isn’t a lot of new ground broken.
The message of this play is: Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose—and, like much in life, it sounds better in French.
Dada Woof Papa Hot by Peter Parnell, directed by Scott Ellis
WITH: Patrick Breen (Rob), John Benjamin Hickey (Alan), Stephen Plunkett (Scott), Alex Hurt (Jason), John Pankow (Michael), Kellie Overbey (Serena), Tammy Blanchard (Julia), and Tori Feinstein supplied the voice of Nicola.
Produced by Lincoln Center Theater; designed by John Lee Beatty, lighting by Peter Kaczorowski, costumes by Jennifer von Mayrhauser, original music and sound by John Gromada. At the Newhouse Theater, 150 West 65th Street through January 3rd. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes with no intermission.