When I saw Daniel’s Husband, I knew nothing of the story in advance, and I believe this fact added to my enjoyment of it. I’m going to detail the story line below, so if you’re inclined to see this play the way I did, by all means avoid the plot spoilers below and go see it with my encouragement. There’s not much time left!
The play opens with a fairly typical gay cocktail party, witty and sparkling but thankfully less bitchy than how such engagements are often depicted. Through this event we are introduced to Mitchell (Matthew Montelongo) the type-A boyfriend of the gentler Daniel (Ryan Spahn), in their “perfectly appointed home” (perfectly appointed by set designer Brian Prather). Mitchell and Daniel have been together seven years, refreshingly without any evidence of an itch. Mitchell’s writing agent and best friend Barry (Lou Libertore) is in attendance with his twink boyfriend, Trip (Leland Wheeler). Over the course of the first few scenes, we see real love and affection between Mitchell and Daniel, as well as the one glitch in their otherwise happy relationship: Daniel wants to get married and Mitchell doesn’t. As for the familiar older-gay-man-dating-a-twink couple Barry and Trip, they have only known each other for a few weeks, and no one, neither on the stage nor off, expects that relationship to last.
I won’t go into the pros and cons of gay marriage as Daniel’s Husband lays them out, because they are quite well known and discussed in the real world. However, much credit goes to playwright Michael McKeever for establishing this familiar conflict through the characters in such a deft manner that the audience is spared the sound of bullet points and is given a chance to hear these arguments freshly presented.
Later in the play, we’re introduced to Daniel’s passive-aggressive mother Lydia (Anna Holbrook), whom Daniel hates behind her back. The gay-son-hates-his-overbearing-mother theme is also familiar in gay storytelling, but the relationship is written and performed with enough subtlety that we’re still interested in what’s going on between them.
Characters and relationships firmly established, McKeever suddenly throws their world into utter havoc. Moments after Daniel gets down on one knee and make a beautifully touching marriage plea to Mitchell, Daniel suffers from a stroke and falls to the floor. In the scene which immediately follows, Daniel breaks the fourth wall and informs us he’s been stricken with a rare medical condition which renders him immobile and speechless. After this bittersweet monologue, Daniel seats himself in a wheelchair and never moves or speaks again for the remainder of the play, which resumes its new and heartrending course, six months later, culminating in the marriage-allergic-boyfriend-losing-custody-of-invalid-boyfriend-to-hated-mother-because-they-were-never-married.
Depending on who you read, there are only two, six, seven, or 36 plots that exist in all of storytelling. Whatever the number, theorists conclude there are definitely a finite number of plot trajectories, so seeing or reading the same story more than once is unavoidable. A friend pointed out that if you substitute the medical malady that occurs in this play with AIDS, you might recognize this story as something you’ve seen/read before. What makes the difference, then, in every book we read or every show we see are the fine details; in the case of Daniel’s Husband, these fine details include stellar writing, superb directing and exquisite acting.
McKeever’s rich and poignant dialog presents these familiar characterizations and story line in such a way that they’re fully experienced before they’re recognized. Direction by Joe Brancato shapes the piece and guides its actors perfectly. Montelongo as Mitchell is bull-headed but sensitively loving; Spahn is pliant but emotionally powerful as Daniel. Veteran Libertore plays the “best friend” role of Barry with touching sincerity, and Wheeler’s Trip, no longer Barry’s boyfriend but now Daniel’s caregiver, is soulfully generous and brimming with goodness. Even the character of Lydia, which could have been written and played as cold and evil, is expertly portrayed by Holbrook as a three-dimensional, troubled but well-intentioned mother. “There is no villain in this”, Lydia tells Mitchell, and you can almost believe her.
The fact that Daniel remains alive but is unable to move or speak makes this story even more tragic than a main-character-dying tale. Not only is Daniel unable to protest his mother’s custody, but he can never say ‘yes’ to Mitchell’s too-late marriage proposal. When Mitchell and the audience realizes Daniel’s terrible fate, both are heartbroken and devastated.
Daniel’s Husband achingly reminds us to never take what we have for granted. Go see it and be infused with gratitude.
Daniel’s Husband plays through December 30, 2018 at the Westside Theatre, 407 West 43rd Street (b/t 9th and 10th Avenues), Manhattan. For information and tickets, visit here.