By Jonathan Kalb
Dada Woof Papa Hot
By Peter Parnell
Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater
150 W. 65th St.
By Mark Gerrard
Pershing Square Signature Theater
480 W. 42nd St.
The realistic social drama, a mainstay of American theater for at least the past hundred years, pretty much exhausted itself after Odets and Miller with the derivative straining of writers like Inge and Lanford Wilson. The genre has been periodically perked up by welcoming in previously excluded or neglected demographics such as Blacks, Jews, non-closeted gays, the deaf, or the autistic. And now Peter Parnell’s Dada Woof Papa Hot and Mark Gerrard’s Steve have opened the door to gay parents—specifically white urban professionals in the era of legalized gay marriage. Several prominent recent articles have compared these concurrent new dramas, and left the impression that they amount to twin beacons of fresh insight into the same ripped-from-the-headlines subject. In fact, their similarities are at best superficial, and the gulf between them illustrates why realism is so deceptive, too often confusing mere appearance and data for truth.
Parnell has written a deeply compassionate and perceptive story about the particular pressures that new parenthood places on gay love relationships. The central partners, Rob and Alan (Patrick Breen and John Benjamin Hickey), jittery about entering middle age, are conflicted about sexual fidelity and all the other conventional social behaviors that suddenly seem necessary to accommodate young children’s routine lives. This pair is contrasted with two other parent couples—one younger and gay, the other the same age and straight—whose somewhat different relationship-bumps and detours set Rob and Alan’s in illuminating perspective. The braided stories have much to say to anyone, of any sexuality, with an interest in the perpetuation of the human species.
Scott Ellis’s production is fleet, bright and splendidly acted. It sensitively frames hundreds of moments that parents will find achingly familiar. Parnell knows precisely what he’s talking about when it comes to how kids and parents simultaneously kill and sustain one another. One father, for instance, resents his daughter’s preference for and resemblance to her other father. Another is fiercely competitive over school applications. The dialogue is awash in dead-on references to clothing fixations, storytelling fixations, art classes, dance classes, sports practices, pickup and dropoff problems, touchiness about tones of voice, tones of face, and much, much more. The range of different responses the various parents exhibit to their children’s maddening interruptions (though no children ever appear) amounts to a veritable mood-symphony.
As the father of two kids, I was struck by the acuity of the many well-observed details—the way Alan, for instance, shrinks from embracing a lover in his three-year-old’s playroom, sensing the symbolic violation of the girl’s space, or the way straight Serena (Kellie Overbey) uses cheery hyperparenting to avoid facing the problems in her marriage. Alan is a fascinating case, because he’s utterly unaware that his daughter Nicola’s meanness toward him and preference for Rob is a test of his love, which he fails by fulfilling her worst fear and leaving the family. Only when she relents and asks for love directly does he see the repercussions of his self-involvement. Such is the wider horizon that can open up when a sensitive adult figures out how to learn from kids.
All this is just what’s egregiously missing from Steve, a play about a middle-aged gay parent-couple and their surrounding circle (another veteran gay couple, a young waiter, and a terminally ill woman) whose main concern is the loss of carefree frivolousness that parenthood and respectable marriage impose. Gerrard tries to insert sharp, on-the-job details of dealing with kids, but few ring true. That’s because his primary attention went into plotting out mildly amusing scenes about flirting, cruising and bonding over musicals, trite displays of indignation over infidelity, dud jokes about the name Steve, and several bafflingly repetitious exchanges in which the severity of terminal illness is portentously evaded. At no point does he ever show a convincingly authentic grasp of his ostensible central subject—parenting. The whole life-consuming, monumental job of guiding a new human being through the minefield of childhood seems fobbed off in the end as larky background to a limp and leaky story about in-crowd posturing and narcissism. There’s nothing wrong with dramatizing triviality, of course. (Oscar Wilde did it profoundly.) A parent’s b***s*** alarm rings only when such frivolity is served up as rarefied wisdom about parenthood.