The gay couples at the heart of two separate plays currently running Off-Broadway have been together for years, and yet, neither are married because one partner in each of the relationships doesn’t want to be, apparently on philosophical grounds:
“Who ever said we were meant to be legal?” Harvey Fierstein as Beauregard says in “Gently Down The Stream,” a play by Martin Sherman through May 21st at the Public Theater. “ We’re supposed to be outlaws; we’re supposed to be inventing new rules, not imitating all the old conventions, not going backwards.”
“The entire concept of marriage, I find it outdated, musty and fundamentally wrong… The only thing to be gained by gay marriage is the legal stuff,” Matthew Motolongo as Mitchell says in “Daniel’s Husband,” a play by Michael McKeever, in a Primary Stages production through April 28 at the Cherry Lane. “We’ve gone to our lawyer and had all of that taken care of.”
The decision not to get married has unforeseen consequences in both new dramas. Do these plays say anything about the state of love after the nation-wide legalization in 2015 of marriage between two people of the same gender? Or do they say more about the state of gay playwriting?
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“Daniel’s Husband” begins the way so many gay plays have in the 49 years since “Boys in the Band” first opened Off-Broadway – gay friends gathered together making witty banter. At a dinner party in a tastefully appointed home (admirably detailed by set designer Brian Prather), we get to know Mitchell, who makes a living as a gay romance novelist, an odd occupation given his cynicism; and Daniel (Ryan Spahn), his partner of seven years, an architect who clearly likes structure in his life; he does want to get married. Their guests for the evening are Barry (Lou Liberatore), Mitchell’s literary agent and best friend, and Barry’s date, Trip (Leland Wheeler), whom Barry met just a few weeks earlier, one of an endless series of short-lasting Barry boyfriends less than half his age. Trip, 23, has never seen a record album before, and he doesn’t understand Mitchell’s attitude towards marriage.
Almost an hour into the 90-minute running time, “Daniel’s Husband” turns into a different play. Since the second half is fresher and more powerful, I feel comfortable revealing what is obviously meant to be a surprise twist, but shouldn’t be. Daniel gets deathly ill, unable to speak. This winds up putting Mitchell at odds – psychologically, and legally — with Lydia, Daniel’s mother. In the first half of the play, we heard Daniel say that Lydia was a selfish mother, and we saw her during a visit drinking champagne and badmouthing Daniel’s dead father. This was preparation for her becoming the villain in the second half. This is true even though (or maybe in part because) she says: “I’m not the villain in this. There is no villain in this.” But she is made the classic straw man – a character who exists to be knocked down.
Given Mitchell’s explicit arguments against gay marriage in the first half of the play, the turn of events becomes an implicit refutation of Mitchell’s beliefs, a one-sided argument for the necessity of gay people getting married. “Daniel’s Husband” becomes an odd and simplistic cautionary tale. Only the acting under Joe Brancato’s direction saves us from utter authorial strong-arming. Rather than deriving any satisfaction at what we could take as Mitchell’s comeuppance, we are moved by Montelongo’s depiction of Mitchell’s desperate love for Daniel. Similarly, both Anna Holbrook as Lydia the selfish mother and Leland Wheeler as Trip the twink defy the potential for stereotype baked into their roles.
Just as Lydia and Mitchell wind up warring with one another, so do the two halves of the play. Both wars are undermining…and avoidable. Had McKeever begun “Daniel’s Husband” with Daniel’s illness – and shelved the first half, perhaps to be used in a future play – “Daniel’s Husband” might have been a wholly affecting drama.
Click on any photographs by Joan Marcus to see them enlarged.
Like Michael McKeever in “Daniel’s Husband,” playwright Martin Sherman in “Gently Down the Stream” seems to believe that same-sex marriage is important, and that there is some resistance to it from within the gay community that he finds regrettable. But Sherman’s approach is less an argument than a simple explanation for attitudes like Beau’s.
Beau (Harvey Fierstein) is a New Orleans-born piano accompanist who lives as an expatriate American in a London flat lined with books (the elegant set is by Derek McLane.) The play begins in 2001, when Beau, using a new-fangled online dating site, has just hooked up with Rufus (Gabriel Ebert, Tony winner for Matilda, and a veteran of Fierstein’s Casa Valentina.) Rufus is a 28-year-old eccentric, bipolar lawyer. Beau is 62. Beau doesn’t expect this “assignation” to last beyond a day. “I’m old enough to be your ancestor.” Yet it develops into a relationship that we track through some sharp-edge curves over the next 13 years.
“Gently Down the Stream” also has a second track. Rufus is interested – obsessed – with gay history. He doesn’t just ask Beau many questions about the past; he insists on videotaping Beau’s recollections. Much of “Gently Down The Stream” is taken up with these recollections, rather awkwardly inserted monologues about old lovers meeting tragic ends – “I knew it would end badly, because that was just simply the way it was with our lot” — and sad moments in gay history. It turns out that, much like Zelig or Forrest Gump, Beau has a talent for being at the right place at the right time – or, with certain tragic events, the exact wrong place. He was also friends, or at least acquainted, with such gay celebrities as Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, Gore Vidal, James Baldwin and Larry Kramer, and lesser known but no less intriguing historical figures, like singer Mabel Mercer (Beau was her accompanist.) Add in the references to AIDS and the crystal meth epidemic among gay men, and the play starts to feel like a forced crash course in gay life. There is another rich layer simply in the casting of Harvey Fierstein, who since his Broadway debut as the author and star of Torch Song Trilogy in 1982, has himself become a figure in gay history.
All of Beau’s recounting of both his personal and communal past, much of it morose, offers a bracing explanation for the character’s pessimism about the future. Even the gay moments (in both senses of the word) are laced with melancholy. In one of his monologues, Beau recalls how “gay life, always secret and furtive and forbidden, blossomed” during World War II, and tells the story he heard from a veteran named Sam of a soldier from the hinterlands, temporarily stationed in New York, taking a room at the YMCA to have sex for the first time with another man, and jubilantly singing the nursery rhyme “Row, row, row your boat/gently down the stream” – which had an odd effect:
“…and suddenly from another room, he heard another soldier’s voice, joining in, a very deep baritone, and then from another room, another voice, and, and then the entire Young Men’s Christian Association, including Sam, seemed to be singing, but not just singing, singing a roundelay, everyone remembering their own childhood and the pain of it, and now suddenly this sense of release….Sam said that was the happiest moment of his life. “
But such euphoria ended abruptly, repression returned at the end of the war, and when Beau met Sam, he had become a drunken bum in Rio.
Beau’s experiences, and that of his circle, have bred in him a sense of hopelessness, leading him to self-sabotage. Convinced that the relationship will end badly, as all his others have, Beau rejects Rufus’ marriage proposal, and in effect pushes him away.
Playwright Sherman, whose best-known play, Bent, was about gay inmates of Nazi concentration camps, obviously knows where Beau’s pessimism comes from, but he evidently does not share it. He presents the optimism of a new generation, embodied not just by Rufus, but by the lover that Rufus eventually finds, Harry (a delightful Christopher Sears), a performance artist younger than Rufus. When Harry, in torn jean, black leather, pierced and tattooed full punk regalia, croons the Gershwin’s The Man I Love, there is something so hilarious, charming and touching about it that you begin to share the play’s optimism, even if Beau never does.
It’s been just 14 years since Massachusetts became the first state in the union to legalize same-sex marriage, six years since New York State, and just two since the Supreme Court legalized it in all 50 states – a decision that, many say, the new administration will try to undermine. Surely, nobody would be surprised by the recent study that concludes that married LGBT adults are happier than single ones. But if there’s been enough time to offer some sociological insight, we may have to wait for our dramatists to fashion from this new reality searing dramas with sophisticated insights.