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When one half of a male couple believes in gay marriage but his partner says “I don’t”

Matthew Montelongo and Ryan Spahn in Michael McKeever’s “Daniel’s Husband,” directed by Joe Brancato, begins an open-ended run at the Westside Theatre this week after two successful earlier runs.
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“Daniel’s Husband,” Michael McKeever’s jolting tragicomedy about a long-term gay couple at loggerheads over tying the knot, is a play that refuses to quit. The original version, staged by Penguin Rep in upstate Stony Point a couple of years ago, proved so popular that it quickly transferred to the Cherry Lane Theatre for a limited run, courtesy of Primary Stages, with the cast and creative team intact.

And now 18 months later, in a rare hat trick, the play is back, this time at the Westside Theatre Off-Broadway for an open-ended run. Remarkably, the entire five-member cast was able to rejigger their schedules to reprise their roles yet again.

Gay City News caught up with Ryan Spahn (“Gloria”) and Matthew Montelongo (“A View From the Bridge”), the out gay actors who portray Daniel and his would-be husband, Mitchell, between rehearsals to chat about the evolution of the piece.

So why revive this production? According to Spahn, the lead producer Ted Snowdon and his husband discovered the play about a year before the rest of the team got involved. It was such a smart, romantic, albeit gut-wrenching story delving into issues of fidelity and compassion, Snowdon wanted to share it with as many people as possible.

“He made it his mission to do a commercial, open-ended run,” Spahn said. “It was important to him personally and profession­ally.”

Montelongo is thrilled to be part of this third go-round.

“I’ve enjoyed every production,” he said. “I felt the previous run might have ended too soon. It had more life in it, and I had more texture to bring to it as an actor. I’m delighted to revisit it with the same cast.”

Not that a seamless remount was guaranteed. In a turn almost as dramatic as the plot twists onstage, Leland Wheeler, who plays Trip, a boytoy of the couple’s friend Barry (Lou Liberatore), was packed up and set to relocate to Los Angeles. But on the day Wheeler bought his plane ticket, he got a call urging him to stay and do the play.

“We are blessed to have the entire group back together again,” Montelongo said, noting that the cast had developed a shorthand with each other, giving them a jump-start on the rehearsal process.

“Daniel’s Husband” has continued to evolve. It takes place in the present day, and while the script remains essentially the same, director Joe Brancato has added new design and dramaturgical elements that expand and deepen the production’s vision and keep it of-the-moment. (Don’t expect, however, topical references to Trump or Melania or Kavanaugh.)

“We’ve made some tonal adjustments,” Spahn noted. “The plot hasn’t changed, but the motivation of certain characters has changed. There are aspects about the play that are going to feel different. Those who saw it before should come see it again.”

“It’s not a period piece like ‘The Boys in the Band,’” Montelongo added. “We want to be truthful and aware of how it’s landing with audiences in 2018 while still honoring the text and the living playwright, who worked with us to find the most relevant way possible.”

If the bond between Daniel and Mitchell has grown deeper with each staging, the ties between the actors who portray them have intensified as well. Even out of character, they tend to finish each other’s sentences.

“We’ve been together as a stage couple for one-third of the time that our characters have been a couple,” Spahn said with a laugh.

For the record, both actors are in longtime relationships and are not married. As it happens, Spahn is partnered with none other than Michael Urie, and Montelongo with Ivan Quintanilla, an actor and travel writer.

Given the current political climate, where the White House has taken a hate-filled, hard right in recent months, does the play resonate more forcefully than before?

According to Montelongo, in rehearsals the cast debated about how the play might register with today’s audiences. They wondered how people would respond when there is more anxiety about issues surrounding rights of LGBTQ folks and other minorities.

“Every single day, the play becomes more and more a living, breathing argument,” Spahn said. “The arguments seem more loaded than they were just a couple of years ago.”

Early in Act One, Mitchell admits disdain for gay marriage, but later clarifies that it’s the outmoded institution he has a problem with, not the right for same-sex couples to marry.

“Mitchell believes it’s a religious-based institution and a consumer-based tradition,” said Montelongo. “It’s an ideological thorn in his paw. He also makes a different argument. He doesn’t think gay people should aspire to be like straight people. What’s the nobility of that? It’s more noble to be outliers in society.”

Daniel, on the other hand, is an architect who dreams of having a beautiful, splashy wedding.

“He wants the fanfare,” said Spahn. “He longs to be baptized in front of the entire world, proclaiming, ‘We love each other. We are married. This is us!’”

Spahn admits he is concerned that LGBTQ folks are increasingly under the microscope and being attacked by demagogues.

“I feel that our own livelihood and safety are in peril because of bigots who feel the need to speak out in anger and behave in aggressive ways. That truly alarms me.”

“I worry more about the erosion of our individual rights,” Montelongo said. “Making it easier for EMTs not to pick us up in ambulances. Or for bakers not to make us wedding cakes. Lately I’ve been thinking that the federal protections conferred by marriage make gay people feel safer as individuals.”

Of course, that assumes that gay marriage will not be gutted by a vindictive US Supreme Court.

Montelongo added that “Daniel’s Husband” has activated his anxieties about caring for the people he loves and being denied access to them in a hospital setting.

While Montelongo believes gay marriage is one of the most important civil rights movements in his lifetime, he asserted that there are other burning LGBTQ issues that still must be addressed. It doesn’t protect trans people, queer people of color, or queer kids from being bullied or beaten. Or stop them from being kicked out of their homes or committing suicide.

To be sure, the one-act drama is about more than gay marriage; it considers the fragile bonds of family. Daniel’s mother (Anna Holbrook), a formidable presence, drives a wedge between the two men. Montelongo believes the piece is also about being open to change and finding compromise.

“How do people who are deeply in love negotiate their opposing views?,” he said. “One wants children, the other doesn’t. One is religious, the other isn’t. How do you have these kinds of conversations? It is really hard to do.”

Despite the heavy subject matter, life isn’t a complete bummer for the two leads in this piece. As Spahn put it, “The play explodes with surprising bursts of humor. Which is what we need right now.”

DANIEL’S HUSBAND | Westside Theatre, 407 W. 43rd St. | Sun., Tue.-Thu. at 7:30 p.m.; Fri.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Sat. at 2:30 p.m., Sun. at 3 p.m. | $59-$99 at danielshusband.com | One hr., 35 mins., no intermission

Updated 10:37 am, October 24, 2018
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