|John Benjamin Hickey and Patrick Breen in Dada Woof Papa Hot. (Photo by Joan Marcus)|
New plays deal so infrequently with the tensions of contemporary American life in any way that might be called complex that Peter Parnell’s Dada Woof Papa Hot, which is being given a fine production under Scott Ellis’ direction at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, makes you sit up a little straighter in your seat. I don’t want to overpraise this play and set up grandiose expectations: it’s small-scale and in a more exciting theatrical scene for new work, its intelligence and sensibility would be laudable but not extraordinary. But nowadays a new play in which the characters are well drawn and clearly differentiated by their dialogue, the themes are not only developed but dramatized, the point of view is fresh and the observation of human behavior is witty as well as precise really does seem extraordinary. I decided to check out the play because the selection committee at LCT seems to do a better job than that of any other theatre in Manhattan (both When the Rain Stops Falling and Blood and Gifts had their American premieres there) and because – having had no previous exposure to Parnell’s plays aside from his unfortunate rewrite of the already unfortunate book of the Alan Jay Lerner-Burton Lane musical On a Clear Day You Can See Forever in 2012 – I was curious. (The play he’s known for, QED, was a one-man piece that starred Alan Alda; LCT produced it following its run at the Mark Taper Forum.)
Dada Woof Papa Hot – a truly terrible title that refuses to stay in the memory – is centered on a gay married couple, Alan (John Benjamin Hickey) and Rob (Patrick Breen), with a nearly four-year-old daughter. Alan, who’s around fifty, is a writer; Rob, in his forties, is a shrink. As the play begins they are in the process of courting the friendship of a couple in their thirties, one of whose two kids attends the same preschool as their daughter: an artist named Jason (Alex Hurt) and his husband Scott (Stephen Plunkett), who works in finance. As the couples’ relationship develops, we see that they divide up in similar ways: Alan’s fear that he isn’t as gifted at child rearing as Rob and his resentment of Rob for his single-minded focus on their little girl mirror Jason’s sexual restlessness as opposed to Scott’s commitment to monogamy. Parnell’s subject, a rich one, is the way gay marriage highlights, even more than previous watersheds in gay rights, the pull among homosexual men between the desire for domestic stability that was once the sole province of straight men and the impulse toward the freedom that settling down curtails. But he’s careful not to make it a simple struggle between the old ideals of gay liberation (which stressed sexual freedom) and the more recent ones that blur the line between gay and straight lifestyles. Alan came out in the early eighties but even as a young man he wasn’t attracted to promiscuity; the way most of his cohort chose to live, including his first boy friend, made him uncomfortable.
|Tammy Blanchard and John Pankow in Dada Woof Papa Hot. (Photo by Joan Marcus)|
And Parnell expands the cast of characters to include a straight couple who mirror both of the others but in particular Jason and Scott. Michael (John Pankow), a playwright who has been Alan’s best friend since college, is married to Serena (Kellie Overbey) and they have a child, but – he reveals to Alan – he’s been having an affair with an actress he’s working with, Julia (Tammy Blanchard). Jason, too, plays around, though in his case he’s upfront about it with Scott (Serena doesn’t know her husband is cheating on her). Scott doesn’t like Jason’s sexual expansiveness but accepts it as long as it isn’t serious and Jason sticks to a prescribed set of sexual rules. Jason explains to Alan that his relative sexual freedom was part of the negotiation over whether or not they would have kids.
The play is a high comedy where the exclusive group, the aristocracy, seems at first to be cultivated, articulate gay Manhattan couples with kids and high-echelon professions but then, cleverly, turns out to be gay and straight couples that fit that description. Most of the comedy is in the first act, and, as in any high comedy, the comedy is in the language. The play gets more serious as it goes along, but I don’t think it ever shifts genres. Alan is the protagonist, which is the reason the two other couples more closely reflect each other than they do him and Rob; they’re the examples that, for good and ill (mostly for ill), he measures himself and his own relationship against. The play is beautifully structured; Parnell has worked it out with precision. At some points (in act two) the writing gets a little self-conscious: you can hear the characters, especially Alan, voice the kind of analysis of their own behavior that we should be left to do on our own. But that’s a minor flaw, like the too-pat ending.
For anyone who attends the theatre in New York with any regularity, the presence of so many highly skilled stage actors – Hickey, Pankow, Overbey, Blanchard – should be a sign of the quality of the production – and they’re all extremely good, though perhaps Blanchard overdoes a little the brassy-dame approach to her part. I hadn’t seen Breen on stage before (he was mostly familiar to me from television), but he’s on a par with the others. Of the two younger members of the cast, Stephen Plunkett comes across as a little pallid but Alex Hurt, balancing gentleness and sexual confidence, is a standout as Jason. The show, which is deftly designed by Jennifer von Mayrhauser (costumes), Peter Kaczorowski (lighting) and especially John Lee Beatty (sets), is an early highlight of the New York theatre season.
– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.