Off-Broadway Review: “Daniel’s Husband” at Primary Stages at Cherry Lane Theatre

Off-Broadway Review: “Daniel’s Husband” at Primary Stages at Cherry Lane Theatre (Through Friday April 28, 2017)
By Michael McKeever
Directed by Joe Brancato
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited

“The thing was, I was really good at it. And I loved it. I just loved being able to . . . I don’t know . . . make someone more comfortable. Make some of their pain go away. And it wasn’t just because it was someone I loved. It was . . . the fact that I was in control. That I could make that kind of impact on someone’s life. It was empowering.” – Trip

It is the playwright’s responsibility to have a theme in mind when writing a play: the play needs to be about something. If titles are important – and they are indeed – then “Daniel’s Husband,” currently running at Primary Stages at Cherry Lane Theatre, is about forty-something writer Mitchell Howard (Matthew Montelongo) the “partner” of architect Daniel Bixby (Ryan Spahn). Assuming Mr. McKeever’s play is in fact about Daniel’s “husband,” what is it about Mitchell that makes a good play?

Mitchell and Daniel have been a couple for seven years. Early in the play, at a dinner party at their home, Mitchell makes it clear he does not “believe in Gay Marriage.” His clarity includes an extended argument that embarrasses Daniel and angers him. What does Daniel believe in? Just prior to the play’s climax – the turning point of “Daniel’s Husband” the creative team prefers critics not reveal – Mitchell asks Daniel, “I love you! Why can’t that be enough? Why do we have to get married?” Daniel’s impassioned plea initiates the falling action, “Because it’s not enough anymore to call you my partner. I can’t keep calling you my lover or my companion. Damn it Mitchell, I want to call you my husband!”

Mitchell’s justification is not substantiated. In response to Trip’s query about Mitchell’s resistance to marriage, Mitchell boasts, “But I like being singled out. I like being different. I love being unique in a world that’s full of ‘normal.’” However, Mr. McKeever’s character is anything but different. This inconsistency in character development is typical of the inconsistencies in the entire script.

The play begins with the above-mentioned dinner party and is the source of the kind of well-placed foreshadowing that will result in a chorus of “Why didn’t I see that” queries. Daniel and Mitchell are hosting Mitchell’s best friend (and agent) Barry Dylon (Lou Liberatore) and his new young boyfriend Trip (Leland Wheeler) who is an in-home healthcare specialist (“I go to people’s homes to take care of them. Stroke victims, that sort of thing”) and a fan of Mitchell’s gay novels. In fact, Barry picked Trip up at the local “Whole Foods Coffee Bar reading [Mitchell’s] ‘Rainbow Joe.’” This opening scene is meant to be funny – and many found it so – but it is brimming with what a completely straight audience might imagine a room full of gay men to look and sound like. It could not be more television sit-com in conception and dramatic realization.

Daniel’s mother Lydia (Anna Holbrook) visits Daniel and Mitchell often and proves to be overbearing and controlling. There is not much more that can be said about this annoying and selfish character except that she is yet another stereotype in playwright Michael McKeever’s canon of characters. Of all the cast members, Leland Wheeler fares best as the young Trip. Mr. Wheeler gives his oft maligned character (Mitchell carps, “He can cut his own food?) a depth and authenticity that is refreshing and welcomed. One can care for Trip – something difficult to do for the remaining characters whose exposition makes it difficult for the actors to portray with believability.

Brian Prather’s set design is adequate although it does not necessarily reflect the best effort of “an award-winning architect” to restore and decorate his “perfectly appointed home.” Jennifer Caprio’s costume design and Christina Watanabe’s lighting design successfully support director Joe Brancato’s staging.

If “Daniel’s Husband” is about anything, it should be to highlight the fragility of life, the tenderness of relationships, and Mitchell’s unwillingness to honor either theme. Mitchell is not a likeable character and that makes connecting to Mr. McKeever’s play more difficult. For some reason, the audience seems to overlook this significant problem and satisfies with the tangential themes of gay marriage, nasty mothers and mothers-in-law, vapid conversation, and gay stereotypes ad nauseam. One more glass of wine and/or scotch and the stage hands would have to replenish the stock.

“Daniel’s Husband” is also about making choices and the importance of accepting the consequences of those choices. Mitchell’s decision to deny Daniel the simple courtesy of marrying him has life-changing consequences. What happens to Daniel after Mitchell returns from dropping off Lydia at the airport changes the future of this couple forever. Unfortunately, because of the shallow characterizations, it is difficult to care for any of these characters despite their potentially important conflicts.