South Florida playwright Michael McKeever's latest work, Daniel's Husband, is a comedy; then it's a tragedy. It warms hearts and then breaks them, leaving in its wake a foundation-rattling cautionary tale about the necessity of marriage equality that might be the most momentous play he's ever written. Under Andy Rogow's sensitive, tortured direction and performed by a cast perfectly in sync with the soul-scraping demands of the emotionally topsy-turvy script, the show's Island City Stage premiere is one of 2015's handful of unassailable masterpieces.
The "Daniel" of the title is a successful architect (Alex Alvarez) who lives with his long-term partner, Mitchell (Antonio Amadeo), a writer of some renown. They're the ideal couple, everything but married — a point of contention that reignites every time the issue is addressed. In the effortlessly breezy opening scene, Mitchell and Daniel are hosting a dinner party with Mitchell's agent, Barry (Larry Buzzeo), and Barry's boy toy of the week, Trip (Kristian Bikic). The dialogue is vintage McKeever patter, deft and blunt with the beat of a sitcom, but a sophisticated sitcom. When Barry unconvincingly tries to age himself at 38 in relation to the 20-something Trip, Mitchell fires back, "If you're 38, he's a fetus."
Conversation turns from pop culture to gay marriage, and that's when the marital rift exposes itself. Mitchell loves Daniel deeply, but he is philosophically opposed to the institution of marriage and relishes the gay community's previously forced acceptance to be "different." Daniel wants the whole caboodle — ceremony, rings, honeymoon. He wants to be like everybody else, and he has a simple and compelling argument on his side: because they can now.
Days pass, the fiery issue is put to rest like a tranquilized animal, and life goes on, which includes an initially hilarious visit from Daniel's mother, Lydia (Laura Turnbull). But like most unresolved issues, the marriage question can't help but rear its head again, this time in a more confrontational exchange that climaxes in a devastating plot twist that turns the show on its head.
Daniel's Husband runs an hour and 20 minutes without an intermission, but there are clearly two halves, bisected by this bold narrative pivot. Rogow, who also directed a celebrated reading of Daniel's Husband earlier this year in Boca, has tightened McKeever's already-gripping treatise into something unspeakably moving. Expect your heart to rise into your throat and stay there for the entire second act; if all goes well, you won't notice your breathing until the final bow.
Amadeo's commitment to the role exceeds even the highest expectations, capturing the relentless emotional pain that suddenly blankets Mitchell's existence. He artfully plumbs his character's righteous anger and messily wades through depths of desperation and regret. Alvarez, who is usually shoehorned into ticking-time-bomb characters, is cast at his low-key best. Turnbull embodies a narcissistic mother who is painfully familiar, possessed of a manipulator's cunning and a vulture's opportunistic eyes. Bikic and Buzzeo are the production's flawless rhythm section, keeping steady time while the leads play every note on the scale.
In perhaps the first major work that explores the choice of gay marriage — as opposed to the quest to obtain it or the apartheid state of its absence — McKeever clearly has a point of view to express. And as a greater conflict emerges between Mitchell and Lydia, there's none of this wishy-washy, let's-respect-both-sides, falsely equivalent "balance" that characterizes many plays about divisive issues. McKeever acknowledges that, yes, there are heroes and villains in life but that sometimes preventive solutions can stare you right in the face, that wisdom can be extracted from even the most debilitating of life's curve balls.
Daniel's Husband is a privilege to experience, and it's worth reinforcing that everything about this play and its production is local and new. I am immeasurably proud to be part of a South Florida theater community that could produce a work like this.