“Daniel’s Husband,” an absorbing drama by Michael McKeever that was a hit off-Broadway, explores the debate on same-sex marriage from a less obvious angle. Set in the “perfectly appointed” home of a gay couple, the play examines the conflict between Daniel and Mitchell, committed partners in their 40s who have polarized views on holy matrimony.
Daniel (Bill Brochtrup), an architect who has designed his house to be a picture-perfect nest of sophisticated yet welcoming domesticity, covets marriage papers. Mitchell (Tim Cummings), a novelist who writes pulp romance for a gay press, thinks the whole concept of marriage is “outdated, musty and fundamentally wrong.” He calls it an “archaic institution,” forged problematically out of religion and hijacked by “Madison Avenue.” In short, tacky!
Mitchell has every intention of spending the rest of his life with Daniel. He just doesn’t need a piece of paper “to make it official.” Daniel needs the certificate, along with the vows, the rings, the reception and the honeymoon. The conflict, at least at first, is more personal than political. Mitchell supports the right of gay people to marry. He just doesn’t want to be forced to conform.
At the dinner party in which this old argument erupts, Mitchell explains, “I love being unique in a world that’s full of ‘normal.’ As a gay man, I relish not being like everyone else.” As the volume rises on the revived dispute, Barry (Ed F. Martin), Mitchell’s literary agent, shakes his head at Trip (Jose Fernando), his new, far too young and infinitely more mature boy toy, for pursuing the topic despite his warnings.
McKeever’s play, as gleaming as a coffee table book, begins as a contemporary gay comedy, brimming with snappy repartee and top heavy with cultural references. A game the couples play involves naming preferences (Instagram or Twitter; Anderson Cooper or Don Lemon). The wit is crisp and sitcom accessible, especially when Daniel’s formidable mother, Lydia (a marvelously pushy Jenny O’Hara), arrives in the next scene.
Before O’Hara’s Lydia steps foot in the house, she has already invited the lesbian neighbors for dinner. She urges Daniel to make his chicken dish, the one with the sauce. Daniel, who takes as much care with his cooking as he does with his decorating, needs more specifics about the recipe. But Lydia doesn’t seem to think it matters: “Everybody knows lesbians love chicken.”
The actors, under the direction of Simon Levy, are wonderful, even if they occasionally work too hard at seeming natural. Michael Mullen’s costumes don’t have the same stylish panache of scenic designer DeAnne Millais’ Architectural Digest-ready spread. But the sharply contoured characters are made for entertaining squabbling, and the TV-friendly realism casts its soothing spell.
“Daniel’s Husband” takes an unexpected turn that can’t be revealed, but it changes the stakes of the marriage debate and turns comedy into serious drama. McKeever doesn’t break any artistic ground, but his carpentry is skillful and intelligent. The transition from laughs to gasps is smooth, in large part because the characters are so fleshed out that it wouldn’t make sense for them to keep up the wisecracks after their plot has been upended.
Melodrama erupts but not in an objectionable way. Life, after all, is occasionally melodramatic. McKeever balances the artificiality of his form with the credibility of his content. This is an issue play that rings true.
Brochtrup, though a bit skittish early on, humanizes Daniel’s perfectionist streak with a touch of melancholy and handles a crucial direct-address monologue with aplomb. Some of Cummings’ idiosyncratic flourishes (the funny voices and cutesy noises) call attention to themselves as busy acting, but he forcefully gives voice to Mitchell’s deeply held convictions and excels in the big confrontation scenes by mixing in enough sorrow with the anger.
Martin’s Barry, a middle-aged Peter Pan whose most intimate relationship is with Grindr, is portrayed with too much granularity to be cliché. Fernando never hits a false note as Trip, the youngest of the group but the one with perhaps the oldest soul.
O’Hara’s Lydia, an affluent senior searching for purpose, is such a force of nature that she threatens to have the play retitled “Daniel’s Mother.” Some of her actions are shocking in their selfishness, but she’s always a mother trying to do what’s best for her son, even if she’s severely limited in her understanding of what this might be.
“Daniel’s Husband,” a certified small-scale crowd-pleaser, is perhaps most moving in those moments it expands our understanding of family. The play, gaining strength from the intimacy of the Fountain Theatre and the general excellence of the production, begins in laughter, culminates in tears and leaves off in contemplation of the dangers in putting off for another day what matters most.
Where: The Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Ave., L.A.
When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Mondays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends June 23
Information: (323) 663-1525 or FountainTheatre.com
Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes