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A friend whose specialized field is queer cultural studies observed recently that the not inconsiderable breakthrough of Looking was how the HBO series made it OK for gay characters in fictional drama to be boring. I would add that what made the show also entertaining was its success at sketching those self-absorbed characters with idiosyncratic charm, humor and relatable foibles, reeling us into their tireless — and yes, sometimes tiresome — quest for sex, love and personal fulfillment.
Peter Parnell’s new play, Dada Woof Papa Hot, which is only marginally less irritating than its cutesy title, attempts something similar in its very contemporary snapshot of post-equality gay couples who have secured the fairy-tale family and all the hetero-normative baggage that comes with it. But it’s hardly a startling news flash that gay white middle-class couples fretting about parenting, playdates, diminishing passion and getting into the right kindergarten can be every bit as tedious as their straight counterparts.
There’s enough authenticity in the insights to suppose that the seriocomedy comes from honest firsthand experience. And undoubtedly, there are plenty of provocative points to be made about the wins and careful-what-you-wish-for losses of the cultural and legislative shift toward social equality. But the play is neither clever nor witty enough to do more than scratch the surface; it just seems like a work with its finger on the pulse of the times because it talks — and talks and talks — the talk. That might explain how Lincoln Center Theater managed to get a top director and a handful of first-rate stage actors on board.
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Any chance to watch the always excellent John Benjamin Hickey perform is welcome, and he snags the best role as Alan, the most interesting and layered of the play’s characters. (Which isn’t saying much.) Fiftyish Alan feels the frustration of a writing career that hasn’t quite taken flight as he toils away on a book proposal about the New York gay scene in the early 1980s. And while he was more of an observer than a partying participant back then, and thus survived the AIDS epidemic, he’s old enough to question some of the trade-offs that assimilation has brought for gay men. “I just don’t feel gay anymore,” he admits in a moment of self-reflection. “Not in the way I used to feel.”
Alan has been married for three years to Rob (Patrick Breen) — they’ve been together for 15 years — a therapist and the more natural nurturer of their unseen three-year-old daughter, Nicola. While they are monogamous, Rob tantalizes Alan (and himself) with accounts of an unnamed married gay patient who regales him once a week with recaps of cocaine-fueled sex binges and glimpses of his treasure trail. Alan sublimates his desire in strenuous workouts with his hot young trainer. But he’s tormented by the certainty that Nicola loves Rob (her biological father) far more than him, confessing that he feels like the classic dad, jealous of a child who stole his wife’s affections.
Parnell sprinkles in references to children’s stories — Peter and the Wolf, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, The Runaway Bunny, Babar the King and The Tale of Mrs. Tittlemouse among them — to suggest all kinds of issues for both kids and parents. But that motif doesn’t go much beyond pointing out the obvious anxieties beneath the surface of seeming bliss and stability.
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While Alan and Rob make a believable couple (the central family unit is a close match for Parnell’s own), their significantly younger new best friends do not. Hard-bodied Jason (Alex Hurt) is some kind of painter (figurative but subversively so, whatever that means); uptight Scott (Stephen Plunkett) is in private equity and probably a Republican, not that it matters much. They’ve been together eight years and married for five, with a son around the same age as Nicola and a baby boy. It emerges that Jason has a mild sex addiction, and he agreed to have children in exchange for a certain freedom to play around. Yet those transgressions have an adverse impact on both couples.
To broaden the picture somewhat, there’s also Alan’s straight best friend from college, Michael (John Pankow), a Broadway composer coming off a stinging flop. He’s married to Serena (Kellie Overbey), who doesn’t seem to do much except obsess about their children at home and badger her mother, the free babysitter, with phone calls. Perhaps that makes it unsurprising that Michael is having an affair with another mom at the kids’ school, Julia (Tammie Blanchard), an actress appearing in a Netflix series about — you guessed it — parents. Alan is shocked at his friend’s admission of infidelity. Oh, and everyone suspects Julia’s husband might be gay.
You can hear the chuckles of recognition from parents in the audience at observations concerning the shift in perspective in a relationship once a child comes into the picture. And you can share many of those laughs, even if you’re childless. For gay men, the playwright appears to be saying, that shift can be especially jarring, crimping the sensuality that is so much a part of the gay male identity. Or maybe the difficulties and rewards are the same, gay or straight, and we’re all blurring into one big homogeneous mass. Despite endless conversations around those themes, the play’s points are neither cogent nor compelling.
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Whether in the oh-so-beige Manhattan apartment of Alan and Rob, at their favorite hotspot restaurant or out in the Pines at the Fire Island summer rental of Jason and Scott, this is not an intriguing world to spend time in and these people are not stimulating company. Even less so once Rob opens up with the weepy disclosure that he has transferred the loss of his late mother’s affections to his daughter, creating another private club for two, to which Alan gains admittance only by shedding a few tears of his own. Some might find this sappiness moving. I didn’t.
Director Scott Ellis, a comedy specialist somewhat wasted on this gab-athon, moves things along at a steady pace; the actors for the most part get the job done (Plunkett’s meltdown being an exception), and designer John Lee Beatty orchestrates some gorgeously fluid scene changes, with lots of interlocking pieces. But for a play about gay men navigating the new normal, it all feels numbingly familiar, somewhat shallow and more than a little dull. Or if you’ll forgive me, too straight. A mention or two of a Tibetan nanny — sorry, caregiver — is about as close as the play gets to anyone from a different class or cultural background, and the knowing wink doesn’t make that narrowness any more palatable.
On a more positive note, last week I overheard a gay guy at the next table at my local Chelsea Chinese referring without so much as a smirk to “my first husband.” That makes me look forward to the inevitable day of full theatrical parity, when we can muscle in on the heterosexual domain of lacerating plays about our toxic divorces, greedy exes and damaged children. Not to curse anyone’s marriage for the sake of better theater…but bring it on.
Cast: Patrick Breen, John Benjamin Hickey, Stephen Plunkett, Alex Hurt, John Pankow, Kellie Overbey, Tammy Blanchard
Director: Scott Ellis
Playwright: Peter Parnell
Set designer: John Lee Beatty
Costume designer: Jennifer von Mayrhauser
Lighting designer: Peter Kaczorowski
Music and sound designer: John Gromada
Presented by Lincoln Center Theater
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