Any professional critic worth his or her salt strives to be fair, tactful, entertaining and, most of all, honest. To regularly gush or fawn over productions would cause us to lose our credibility. But every now and then, a play comes along that leaves us no choice but to gush.
Such is the case with Dezart Performs’ current production of Michael McKeever’s Daniel’s Husband.
The story is riveting, and the acting is some of the best I have seen on a local stage in the past 20 years. Though centered around the 2015 Supreme Court ruling legalizing gay marriage nationwide, the play is about so much more than that. It hits a whole lot of hot-button issues—commitment-phobic mates, overbearing mothers, age-inappropriate dating, dashed career dreams and navigating the legal system as common-law partners.
The play opens on a dinner party at the home of Daniel (Michael Shaw), a successful architect, and his partner, Mitch (David Youse), an equally successful author. Their guests are Mitch’s agent, Barry (Chuck Yates), and his new boy toy, Trip (Hanz Enyeart). The after-dinner small talk gets heated when Trip innocently asks why Daniel and Mitch aren’t married. They’ve been together for seven years and seem very happy, and gay marriage is legal now, so, Trip wonders … why not get hitched?
It is an issue the couple painfully wrestles with often. Daniel desperately wants to get married, while Mitch is adamantly against it. He loves Daniel deeply but does not respect the institution of marriage. He finds it old-fashioned and unnecessary—a concept foisted on mankind by religious zealots that has morphed into a money-making scheme. When pressed, Mitch fires back, “When did it become important for the gay community to be like everyone else?”
Meanwhile, Daniel is dreading the upcoming week-long visit by his mother, Lydia (Deborah Harmon). Widowed, wealthy and pushy, Lydia’s life is shallow and empty. She claims to love both Daniel and Mitch, “her boys,” and would also like to see them married—but underneath her smile is a controlling woman who can’t resist a veiled barb or two. Upon arrival, she invites the lesbians across the street to dinner, and insists that her son whip up a chicken dish he’s made in the past, because “everyone knows lesbians love chicken!” The tension between Daniel and Lydia is based largely on Daniel’s belief that his narcissistic mother is responsible for his late father’s failure to become a famous artist.
Without giving too much away, a sudden tragedy turns everything upside down, and brings up the old debate over whether blood is thicker than water.
Once again, Dezart’s artistic director, Michael Shaw, has made a brilliant choice with this play. Casting is always crucial, especially in a small ensemble piece like this, and here, it was spot on. Director Darin Anthony elicits amazing performances from each of his actors.
Shaw’s portrayal of Daniel is fabulous. He is sweet, funny and likable. The raw pain and desperation he feels over Mitch’s refusal to wed is palpable. What he’s on called to do as an actor is quite challenging, but Shaw pulls it off beautifully.
I have never seen Deborah Harmon be anything but terrific onstage, but she outdoes herself here as Lydia. Her breezy entrance, while dressed in pearls and perfectly coiffed, is memorable. Early on, she is hilarious, but her switch to a devious, cut-throat matriarch is quite effective.
Chuck Yates is equally as good as Barry. While his dating life is problematic—his attraction to decades-younger guys has not worked out well—he is the steadying presence in the story. Actors in less-flamboyant roles can sometimes get lost on the stage. Yates does not. Even when silently observing the action, he commands our attention.
As Trip, Hanz Enyeart is tremendous. Young, ditzy and flamboyant, the character of Trip is written to be a bit over the top, and Enyeart delivers, big-time. Yet later on, his poignant moments are authentic as well.
If I had to single out one performance, it would be that of David Youse as Mitch. We see immediately why Daniel loves him. He’s tall, rugged and affable. Both his passion for and commitment to Daniel are believable, as is his stubborn resistance to tying the knot. In the dramatic scenes toward the end of the play, Youse is simply stunning. Often one of the toughest things for actors to do onstage is just be still—to listen, absorb and just BE. Everyone in this cast nails that challenge, but Youse is outstanding.
Everyone on the production team did a bang-up job here. Special mention needs to be made of Thomas L. Valach’s set, which is simply perfection.
Love IS love—and Daniel’s Husband is magnificent.
Dezart Performs’ production of Daniel’s Husband is performed at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, Jan. 19, at the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, 314 S. Cahuilla Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $35 to $40. For more information, call 760-322-0179, or visit www.dezartperforms.com.