By Donna Herman
By definition, Michael McKeever’s Daniel’s Husband is a modern Greek tragedy even though the first couple of scenes are laugh-out-loud funny. Although the play is about a gay couple, it is a universal look at love, commitment, marriage and family that knows no gender. It’s questions and concerns are modern and transcend religion, race or nationality. Daniel’s Husband asks important questions. What do I owe of my personal life to my public life? How far am I willing to compromise my needs for the needs of my partner? What are the limits of love?
Daniel (Ryan Spahn) is an architect in his 40’s, and his partner of seven years, Mitchell (Matthew Montelongo), is a writer who is, by his own admission is, “the twenty first century gay equivalent of Barbara Cartland.” They live together in a house that Daniel found and renovated lovingly before he met Mitchell. They are hosting a dinner party with Mitchell’s 49-year-old agent Barry (Lou Libertore) and his latest fling Trip (Leland Wheeler), a 20-something home health aide. Trip is clearly in awe of the perfect domestic life that Daniel and Mitchell display and their obvious affection for one another. The only blemish on the evening comes when he innocently asks how long they’ve been married and gets a tirade from Mitchell on why he doesn’t believe in marriage.
Apparently, Mitchell comes from a highly dysfunctional family that has soured his views on marriage. He tells the story of his grandmother who, at age 78, was sitting with his grandfather one night after dinner, knitting. She suddenly, without warning, turned and stuck a knitting needle through his neck. When asked why she did it she said, “YOU try being married to that son of a bitch for 60 years!” He has no desire to be assimilated into straight culture and feels he has taken care of the legal protections he and Daniel need. This is clearly an old argument between them that Daniel shuts down. The night ends peacefully enough with Mitchell and Barry making a date the following week for Barry to hand over the galleys of Mitchell’s new book. Mitchell reminds Daniel that’s the day Daniels mother Lydia (Anna Holbrook) is coming for a visit. Ugh. Daniel turns into a whiny 14-year-old.
When Lydia shows up we see why. Perfectly groomed and turned out, she’s overbearing and completely inappropriate. Her first words to Mitchell are:
LYDIA: You look good, you’ve put on weight. MITCHELL: I’ve done no such thing. LYDIA: Of course you have. But it agrees with you. Your face is all filled out. You look downright chubby. DANIEL: Mother, you can’t tell a gay man he looks chubby. LYDIA: Even as a compliment? DANIEL: Especially as a compliment. LYDIA: Mitchell doesn’t mind, do you Mitchell? MITCHELL: You really think I look chubby? LYDIA: I think you look gorgeous. More importantly, who is this person I don’t know. MITCHELL: Oh, this is Barry. BARRY: (shaking her hand) Barry Dylon. It’s very nice to finally meet you. LYDIA: You’re the agent. BARRY: Yes. LYDIA: You’re the one who drinks too much and dates all the young boys. BARRY: See? You do know me.
It turns out that Daniel’s family life has also been dysfunctional. His mother and father were bitterly divorced, with Daniel stuck in the middle. Lydia finds herself alone in her 60’s with nothing to do or care about except her dogs and her charity functions and has a son who keeps her at arm’s length. This visit proves too much for Daniel and does not end well.
Aristotle defined tragedy as depicting the downfall of a protagonist through a fatal flaw or error in judgement that causes them suffering and insight, and instilling pity and fear in the audience. If the sniffles I heard in the audience at the end were any indication – mission accomplished. Although technically, it should be labelled a tragicomedy since the biting humor laced throughout also hits its mark. Merging the two genres is not an easy feat to pull off, but no problem for the uber-talented Michael McKeever. His characters are distinct and each one is drawn with compassion, clarity and truthfulness. The arc of the story is compelling, and gives the audience something meaty to chew on as they file out.
Kudos has to be given to director Joe Brancato who keeps the pace moving perfectly, and orchestrates the production so deftly with the perfect lighting design by Jeff Croiter & sound design by William Neal. I also have to mention the stunning performances by the entire cast. It is ensemble acting at its finest. They have all done prior productions of the play and it shows. There wasn’t a moment when I felt that any member of the cast was “acting.” I even had tremendous moments of sympathy and connection with Lydia who is not supposed to be the most likeable character. Now that’s an exceptional performance.
Daniel’s Husband By Michael McKeever, Directed by Joe Brancato
WITH: Matthew Montelongo (Mitchell Howard); Lou Libertore (Barry Dylon); Ryan Spahn (Daniel Bixby); Leland Wheeler (Trip); Anna Holbrook (Lydia Bixby); Austin Reed Alleman (Jacob)
Scenic Design by Brian Prather; Costume Design by Gregory Gale; Lighting Design by Jeff Croiter; Original Music and Sound Design by William Neal; Casting by Stephanie Klapper, CSA; Production Stage Manager, Michael Palmer; Jason Paul Richard (Assistant Stage Manager); Technical Supervisor, Mary Duffe, Producer, Ted Snowdon. At Westside Theatre Upstairs 407 West 43rd Street, NYC through February 3rd. For tickets visit www.danielshusband.com.