Monday, January 30, 2017

"Daniel's Husband"

Daniel’s Husband
Michael McKeever

Daniel Redmond, Nathan Tylukti, John Steele Jr. & Michael Monagle
There are Hallmark-like phrases that pop up daily in our lives on one of those obnoxious Facebook-posted posters that that we habitually ignore, scrolling quickly to a much more interesting cat video or picture of someone’s latest meal.  “Live each day to it fullest.” “Never put off until tomorrow what needs to be done today.” “Appreciate what you have before it turns into what you had.” 

Such admonishments are enough to induce a gag response; but after seeing the gripping, heart-wrenching (and yet at times, ridiculously funny) West Coast premiere of Michael McKeever’s Daniel’s Husband, the urgency to reassess one’s own life, relationships, and abandoned ‘to-do’ list is palpable and blood-pressure-rising.  New Conservatory Theatre Center stages a first-class, not-to-be-missed production of a play that took South Florida by storm in its extended-run, 2015 premiere and is soon headed to an off-Broadway production at Primary Stages.

Mitchell -- a successful, award-winning author – and Daniel, his hot-looking architect and partner-in-life (or is it lover, significant other, or boyfriend?) are in many ways the perfect, 21st Century, urban couple.  They entertain well with homemade, exotic-flavored flan and flowing glasses of expensive wine.  They have a best friend Nathan (also Daniel’s agent) who like clockwork surprises them every few months with his latest boy toy (this time, a blue-lipped hipster in skin-tight pants and wild-dotted socks named Tripp -- almost half Nathan’s age).  They can hardly keep their eyes unlocked, lips apart, or hands off each other as they play a parlor game with their guests (“Star Wars or Star Trek?  Harry Potter or Game of Thrones?” “Betty or Wilma?”).  And they have a visiting mother coming soon (Daniel’s) who clearly adores them and can only talk in gushing swoons about how much she loves “her boys.”

But when new-to-the-foursome Tripp asks innocently, “Why aren’t you two married?” and then is youthfully persistent in not letting go of the inquiry, fireworks that have evidently exploded in the past once again fill the room with a party-busting conflagration.  Marriage is “an archaic institution fundamentally wrong,” lambasts Mitchell, and is meant only for “incipient queens who want to assimilate.”  For Daniel, this tired argument once again totally exasperates him, and his volley of responses helps send the perfect couple into a downward spiral of ever-louder shouting that is accompanied by stomping around the room and glaring looks that could kill.  Daniel, it seems, just wants “to call you my husband” – a mainstream, heterosexual branding Mitchell has no intention of ever tattooing on his being.

And then something happens – that moment when in a split second everything changes:  An unintended word, a knock on the door, an outside event, a feeling of something going on inside not quite right.  Michael McKeever cleverly and skillfully has lured us into the lives of this couple, their friends, and their mother.  We have laughed a lot at their gay sniping, shaken our heads either in agreement or not with their differing views on marriage, and maybe have even speculated over who will now end up in bed with whom among the four friends (because surely there is going to be some kind of swapping going on eventually ... This is a gay play after all). 

But then Michael McKeever inserts one event, one quick moment, just a blink of the eye; and his play turns itself inside out, upending all the assumptions, preconceptions, and preliminary conclusions we have reached thus far about the people we have met and the relationships among them.  The result is now a play that is staggeringly sobering, deeply thought-provoking, and subsequently soul-searching for all watching its unfolding.  From parlor arguments about gay dating habits among friends and gay marriage between long-term partners, he has moved us into questions of what is family, how do we protect ourselves and our loved ones from unexpected upheaval, who makes what decisions for whom, and what does loss – any loss of our core being—really look and feel like.

Allen Sawyer directs the pace, emotional swings, as well as the character and plot twists and turns with deft decisions that pay off big time – especially given the talented cast he is handed.  Michael Monagle is a smooth, suave Daniel Bixby who glides his tall, lanky body through its debonair hosting, who grimaces and mostly bears it silently when his egocentric but well-meaning mother arrives, and who shows in passionate eyes and clinched hands his almost desperate desire to marry his Daniel.  However, when he steps forward to within inches of the audience’s front row to explain the plot twist the playwright inserts into his and Daniel’s lives, Mr. Monagle is stunning in his sobering soliloquy before he moves into a second-half persona that surely breaks the hardest heart in the spell-bound audience.

Mitchell, when on his high horse about his marriage, is like an orator on a great stage.  His finger-pointing arms flail in great dramatics as his voice flows up and down in intensity and volume in roller-coaster fashion, rising and falling for the intended effects of commanded attention and final persuasion.  He is also the snappy friend who can come up with continual one-liners about the latest, young date or the loving ‘son-in-law’ who can cozy up to his partner’s mother in ways just to irritate his lover and clearly place him in her favor forever.  But as does Mitchell, Daniel Redmond too collides head on into the playwright’s 180-degree plot turn; and the physical response, change of demeanor, and range of emotions he then displays as an actor are masterful and key to the show’s final message and success.

Michael Monagle, Christine Macomber & Daniel Redmond
As Lydia, mother of Daniel, Christine Macomber makes us believe she is just a nice, old lady who likes “kazoo concerts and pet sweaters” (the latter for her four dogs and many cats).  Sure, we soon see she is also carrying some baggage from her long-deceased husband (“the man was a clown car of demons”), but the love she has for “her boys” seems genuine as seen in her twinkling eyes and a smile that should warm any heart (but somehow, not so much her son, Daniel’s).  The shifts post-plot-change that Lydia makes, however, are chilling.  That smile, while still there, takes on an entirely different meaning as Ms. Macomber excels in her character transition.

John Steele, Jr.’s twinky Tripp may like to carry around a Little Mermaid back pack; but at times, he seems to be the only adult in the room.  His bright-colored lips are a show unto themselves when he is full of his twenty-something cuteness; but this “old soul trapped in a young boy” time and again shows he has a heart that is huge, convincing, and inspiring.  His temporary boyfriend and friend of the ‘family,’ Barry (Nathan Tylutki), is the one who seems more immature of the two as he seems to be in constant pursuit of the next, new thing to date; but his bearded face cannot hide his own deeply felt reactions to the changes soon to occur in his and his friends’ lives.

Robert “Bo” Golden has designed in the intimate Walker Theatre space a high-styled, well-appointed apartment for these two, fine-living gay guys, complete with both white leather and built-in shelving as well as a “Gay-ola” poster in the hallway and fine-crystal, erect penis on the bookshelf.  Maxx Kurzunski’s lighting gives the modern apartment extra flair and style while Ryan Lee Short’s sound choices connect the scenes with Daniel’s favorite music as well as underline the changing mood of the play itself.  Michelle Mulholland decks out Tripp with his mod flash, Lydia with her aristocratic fashion, and the other gays in their casually cool duds.

Daniel’s Husband is on the surface an argument for and against two gay men deciding whether or not to follow society’s norms and the now-legal path to marriage.  However, Michael McKeever’s brilliantly conceived script is so much more that speaks to any two people -- same or different in sexes -- about what is commitment in relationship, what are the legal ramifications of whatever choices they make, what risks are they willing to take, and how could possible loss – if anticipated ahead of time -- challenge and maybe change long-held beliefs.  In the hands of the stellar team at New Conservatory Theatre Center, these and many other threads of exploration are open for the taking by the audiences of Daniel’s Husband.

Rating: 5 E

Daniel’s Husband continues through February 26, 2017 on the Walker Theatre stage of The New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness Avenue at Market Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available online at or by calling the box office at 415-861-8972.

Photo by Lois Tema

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