Daniel’s Husband is a relatively new (ahem) straight play that has been making the regional circuit for the past two years. Now the play has come to San Francisco from New Conservatory Theatre Center in a production ahead of the play’s off-Broadway debut in the spring. Everywhere the play has been, it has garnered extremely enthusiastic reception, so I was very much excited to be able to see what all the fuss was about. Much to my own disappointment, I cannot add my own voice to the overwhelming praise. While Daniel’s Husband features a charming first act, it falters in its second act to create an evening of theatre that even NCTC’s affable production cannot save.
The play centers around Mitchell Howard, an author of gay fiction and longtime partner of Daniel Bixby, a successful architect and noted aesthete. Daniel wants nothing more than to get married. Mitchell hates the whole idea of the institution of marriage, specifically that of gay marriage. The play begins pleasantly with a dinner party with Mitchell’s agent Barry and his new boyfriend Trip, a 20-something private nurse, who is clearly more of a fling than a serious relationship, before progressing forward somewhat aimlessly-yet-amiably through Daniel and Mitchell’s life, where we are also able to meet Daniel’s mother Lydia, a 21-st century Amanda Winfield who so desperately loves her son (and is somewhat overzealous in her acceptance of Daniel’s sexuality), but always ends up making her parenting decisions for herself rather than her son, much to Daniel’s chagrin.
For much of the first act, Daniel’s Husband looks like it’s going to shape up to be an enjoyable romantic comedy-drama, but unfortunately the end of the first act brings with it a twist that both completely redefines the purpose of the play and signs its own death warrant. The second act serves to be far more dramatic than comedic, with the dramatic stakes eventually being raised to deliriously high levels. A well executed melodrama can be highly effective in its own way (see: Brian Friel’s The Freedom of the City, all of Ibsen’s bibliography), but it requires the utmost delicacy from the playwright, a quality that Michael McKeever, the author of Daniel’s Husband, isn’t in possession of. McKeever’s characters lack texture, making the audience have to strain to find empathy for them, and his ear for dialogue is flat-footed and involves a lot of characters making very long and very loud speeches. This was not exactly beneficial in the first act, but the play was light enough that a true writing delicacy was not necessary. With the second act, however, pathos is desperately sought (and would be what would be necessary for the work to come off) and unfortunately nowhere to be found.
If you’re the kind of person who is easily won over by sentimentality (and have an affinity for Lifetime Original Movies), Daniel’s Husband may still be of interest to you, in which case you’ll be happy to know that New Conservatory Theatre Center’s production of Daniel’s Husband is, in fact, highly decent. Daniel Redmond had trouble remembering his lines when I saw him, but he’s doubtless learned them by now and his performance is quite effective. Christine Macomb as Lydia is the standout member of the cast, somehow always finding the truth in her role, even when the script betrays her. It’s difficult to watch her and not see your own mother. The other three members of the cast give straightforward and appealing performances, albeit in characters with less depth than any actor would want. Allen Sawyer’s staging is subtly visually interesting and makes effective use of NCTC’s minuscule stage.
I have a soft spot for queer theatre, so it’s a shame that Daniel’s Husband fails to live up to the mark. Don’t worry, it’s only a matter of time before another good gay play opens in the bay area. I’ll be sure to try and see it when it comes.
Daniel’s Husband runs in San Francisco through February 26. Tickets and information available here.