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Dada Woof Papa Hot

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Alex Hurt, John Benjamin Hickey, Stephen Plunkett, and Patrick Breen
Photo by Joan Marcus

The dark side of marriage equality gets the full-sunlight treatment in Dada Woof Papa Hot, which just opened at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center. In this incisive if not quite riveting 100-minute play by Peter Parnell, four gay men who not that long ago hungered for the opportunity to be regarded the same as straight couples learn that maybe their desires and dreams weren't as developed as they thought. Now that they've attained what they wanted, does it make sense that maybe it's not the best thing for them after all?

The real-world implications (if any) of that question aside, it's justified cleanly and competently here. Parnell (whose original plays include Trumpery and QED, and who revised the book for the 2011 Broadway revival of On a Clear Day You Can See Forever) applies the classic domestic-sweetness-turns-sour plot for these middle-class men, who are still struggling to find their way in a society that doesn't always register for them the way it once did. And, in doing so, he raises intriguing issues of just how much any laws or cultural shifts can change who we are at heart.

When we first meet the two couples in a ritzy Manhattan restaurant, both seem fairly clear-cut. Rob (Patrick Breen) is a psychologist married to Alan (John Benjamin Hickey), a full-time freelance writer; and Scott (Stephen Plunkett) is in private equity, and married to the artist Jason (Alex Hurt). Hanging out socially not long after meeting at a group for gay dads, they chit-chat about jobs, kids, and other typical domestic subjects, and discover that they like spending time together. Rob and Alan are quite a bit older (by a couple of decades, at least), so finding common ground isn't easy at first, but before long the two pairs have become close.

John Benjamin Hickey and Alex Hurt
Photo by Joan Marcus

Ah, but how close is too close? As it turns out, that depends. When a subtle, fairly innocent flirtation becomes a kiss, Alan and Jason's barely hidden secrets start painting them as rather different than the "norm" to which they thought they ascribed. Alan, who joined the gay scene in New York at the height of its promiscuity in the pre-AIDS 1980s, never imagined he would get married and become a parent, and still isn't sure it's right for him—in no small part because his daughter, Nicola, apparently likes Rob (her biological dad) much more, a fact that is slowly eroding their joint harmony (and sex life). On the other hand, Jason went into his own marriage not wanting to give up everything he'd grown accustomed to, and negotiated a series of rules to leave open certain doors suggest commitment is, for him, not an ironclad thing.

Such divergent views kindle conflict, both internal and external, as Alan is inspired to reconsider the life in which he's landed and Jason, Rob, and Scott must all deal with the fallout once it's discovered. How that act can have four distinct shades of meaning depending on who's pondering it, and what that means for the marriages and the greater gay movement as a whole becomes an appendage to the central (and perhaps more universal) topic of midlife crises and what sacrifices can or should be made to maintain a workable balance between personal happiness and family unity.

This isn't a wholly new idea, but Parnell's passing it through the filter of gay expectations and history is not something I've encountered much in mainstream venues, and it adds an appealing edge to something that otherwise may not have enough weight to support itself. And the playwright's willingness to both accept and challenge traditional views of monogamy and sexual expression, in essence embracing the past while being resigned to the present, provides a vivid contextual background against which the story could unfold. This is a play that doesn't just play as rigorously of the moment, but also feels like a necessary expansion of the genre into realms that were unthinkable (if not also inapplicable) not that long ago.

Dada Woof Papa Hot ("If you put them together," Alan explains about the title words, the first four Nicola spoke, "they say what every gay dad wants to hear") is at its best when Parnell is exploring the politics beneath the relationships and how old choices and personalities may not fade as much as everyone wishes they would. He has built much of his speech and dialogue around half-finished sentences, which can sometimes be unsatisfying but, most notably in the case of the discombobulated Alan, adds an additional layer of realism to the proceedings. If someone can't plan out what they're going to say in the next five seconds, how can they be expected to plan out the next decade or three?

Things are, however, less interesting when they get more "conventional," particularly in focusing on Alan's friend Michael (John Pankow), a straight musical theatre songwriter who's married to Serena (Kellie Overbey) but having an affair with an actress named Julia (Tammy Blanchard). Parnell's investigation of the gay commitment question feels fresh, but this subplot does not, and comes across as an awkward attempt to evoke equivalency that's not needed for the play to function. The writing, the direction (smoothly oiled, by Scott Ellis), the design (the fashionable, sliding sets are by John Lee Beatty, and the homey lighting by Peter Kaczorowski), and the performances are more than enough.

The standout is Hickey, whose brusque warmth masks a personal loss that brands Alan as living in two times simultaneously, and equally uncomfortably. He's friendly, yes, but forever on edge, a quality that plays beautifully opposite both Breen (at his workaday best) and Hurt (flighty but good). Plunkett casts Scott as even more highly strung and less capable of adaptation, and nicely underplays a resentment that becomes a key distinguishing factor later. (One of the writing's chief weaknesses is when the unions fracture; reading the script, I'm not convinced that Parnell got the outcome right, but Hickey and Plunkett's detailed depictions of two men at opposite ends of a crisis convinced me that, in this case, it would work.) Pankow, Overbey, and Blanchard make no big mistakes in their portrayals (though Blanchard is on the broad side), but they fail to elevate their characters above a text that doesn't really know what to do with them.

It's understandable: That trio's jumbled version of marital strife is well trod, old hat enough that it would run the risk of being boring even if it were expertly executed. Alan, Rob, Scott, and Jason are breaking new ground, trying to divine rules to a game that's still new to all of them. Parnell doesn't stretch Dada Woof Papa Hot as far as you wish he would, but you can't help but feel that, in laying out the boundaries of this new paradigm, he's setting the stage for other plays to take fuller advantage of the daring and exciting new normal in which they'll necessarily be anchored.

Dada Woof Papa Hot
Through January 3
Mitzi E. NewhouseTheatre at Lincoln Center, 150 West 65th Street between Broadway and Amsterdam
Tickets and current performance schedule: Telecharge

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