Author Perry Brass reviews the new play at the Lincoln Center Theater. He is impressed. Here’s why.
I recently went to see the Lincoln Center Theater production of Peter Parnell’s comedic drama Dada Woof Papa Hot at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater. I can say the play is wonderful, at moments superb–and it has literally the cast and production not just to die for, but to run down to Lincoln Center and see. On first glance, though, that is, the first few minutes of it, I wasn’t that positive. The first scene is set in a drop-dead expensive, plus d’ chic Manhattan restaurant where no one can get a “res,” and an extremely stylish Manhattan gay male couple in their forties are entertaining another younger gay couple about a decade or so their junior. What all the men have in common is that they are gay fathers. The dialogue starts off too snappy, too TV sitcomy and I thought: Oh, Jesus!
They’ll have to nail me to the seat.
Then something started to happen. Within a few brief scenes, the characters started to drop off their New York monied affectations–and in New York, in the 20-teens, monied affectations are pretty effin’ de rigueur–and become real. Even when they weren’t. Even the cardboard parts of them seemed real. Because we all do have cardboard parts, the ones we cling to despite all sense, and they need to be shown, too. Peter Parnell does this. The two couples are Rob, an overbooked, thoroughly professionalized, therapist played by Patrick Breen (whom I’d seen in the revival ofThe Normal Heart) and his husband Alan, a writer desperately trying to stay afloat in the cut-throat unbrave new world of books and journalism, played superbly (and I’ll get more to that) by John Benjamin Hickey; and Scott, a conservative (possibly “even Republican”) Wall Street fire-eater inhabited well by Stephen Plunkett and his husband Jason, a painter with an overdrive libido hyper-charged by Alex Hurt who was born with a twinkle in his eye. Rob’s best friend from college, Michael, a straight composer of musical comedies–John Pankow–is also sexually a wild card. Despite the solidity of his marriage to Serena (Kellie Overbey) and homelife with kids, he’s dogpaddling out into the waters of an affair–with an actress, yet (Tammy Blanchard, who seems cut from the Jersey Shore school of acting), mostly for the sheer kicks of it.
“All happy families are alike,” begins Leon Tolstoy in Anna Karenina, in what is perhaps the most famous first line in all of fiction. “It is in their unhappiness that they differ.”
And one of the great questions in Papa Hot is “When you have everything, why stray?” It’s a question everyone asks, gay and straight, and the funny thing about this play is that the person asking it is not straight Michael, who works in theatre, has been around and is definitely not going to ask because he knows, but Alan, Chelsea resident in his younger life, who lived through the sexual jungle of New York in the 1970s and early 1980s, pre-AIDS–and still existed “like a monk.”
Alan wants love. Intensely. Beautifully. Romantically. And he wishes he could find it with Rob, who has already found it with their daughter Nicole. Nicole is never seen in the play, only heard. There are no kid actors anywhere to steal scenes in this drama. They are always present, but off-stage. In bed trying to stay up past bedtime and begging for stories, in the water off Fire Island Pines, at play dates or with their expensive Tibetan nannies (remember when having a Tibetan nanny was the flavor of the week in upper-crust hip New York?), or with their grandmommies who are never called “Granny” because they are still too New York stylish themselves.
Nicole is really the object of Rob’s affection; she is his biological daughter, produced from a contract with a surrogate and an egg-donor, and he is nuts about her. He lives for her. And Alan feels shut out. This is where the painter Jason, an artist right out of an updated D.H. Lawrence novel, walks in. And comes on to Alan in Nicole’s bedroom while Rob is out with Nicole. Alan, like any Lawrence heroine, is at first resistant, then overwhelmed with his own needs and he feels like shit for it.
He suddenly responds to Jason’s incredibly sensuous kiss–one of those gorgeous heart-stopping moments you want to see in theatre–and then falls apart.
It was that this moment that I was completely sucked in, and John Benjamin Hickey did it. It was this exquisite marriage of an actor to a character to a part to a playwright even, to a thing that would have knocked me off my feet if I had been standing up. Hickey steals the rest of the play, too, although there are moments when the other couple in it, Scott and Jason, give him a run for his money: when their marriage crumbles and all of Scott’s bread and Jason’s romantic good looks still can’t hold it together.
There are moments when I had to do a little willing suspension of disbelief, especially in today’s economy: Rob and Alan live too high for a psychotherapist who’s not an MD and his writer husband. Despite the fact that Alan talks about writing for the New Yorkerand Vanity Fair, their life seems a little too plush for me to believe. On the other hand, young Republican Scott, with his Wall Street salary and bonuses, and Jason, an “emerging” painter, seemed more believable. I have walked that path before, or certainly been in the direct shadow of it.
Peter Parnell, who has big credits as a producer of The West Wing and with Disney (The Hunchback of Notre Dame) has not for a second vanilla-ized the dialogue. Jason talks about what he will and won’t do sexually in language that might not make a sailor blush, but certainly must have curled the blue hair of some of the audience at Lincoln Center. There is nothing glossed over, and Parnell knows how to go from very funny to moments of pure feeling–and he gives that to Scott when he has a meltdown on Fire Island, and to Alan when he realizes how much he needs Nicole, the little girl he has a hard time loving.
The one person I had a difficult time with was Rob, who seems more narcissistic and unforgiving than any other character on the stage. He has been loved beyond words by his recently dead mother, and he wants the same thing from Nicole. The real question at the end of Dada Woof, Papa Hot is will Rob ever let this little girl grow up, especially now when she realizes she truly has another father?
You can reach Perry Brass through his website: www.perrybrass.com.
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Originally appeared on Huffington Post.
Photo courtesy: Philip Rinaldi, Lincoln Center Theater