When a play trains its basilisk gaze on a demographic you belong to, it may seem as if the playwright took notes inside your head. That’s how I felt, anyway, at Dada Woof Papa Hot, Peter Parnell’s seriously intelligent and deadly accurate dramedy about middle-aged, gay white male New York parents like myself. As it happens, that demographic is still small enough that Parnell (and several other gay dads involved in this sleek Lincoln Center Theater production) are social acquaintances of mine; we have seen (or heard of) each other doing some of the things the characters wind up doing onstage. For the sake of my marriage, I won’t say which ones. It’s enough to point out that many men — at least among those who lead relatively comfortable lives like ours — really are involved in the drama Parnell devises for them. Even as they embrace the ultimate normality of parenting, they try to retain, within their marriages and sometimes without, a vestige of the ecstatic, undomesticated, wild-type gayness that was the historical engine of the liberation that made their parenting possible in the first place.
Whether they succeed in this balancing act, and whether such success is even possible or desirable, are questions the play poses in various permutations. Rob and Alan, a couple for 15 years and married for three, have a precious 3-year-old daughter, Nicola, whom we hear (“I love risotto!”), but thank God never see. With her as their focus, they seem content just to keep wrestling privately with what Rob, a psychiatrist, calls the “basic sex/love split” endemic to their generation of gay men — a split that gay women used to call “Lesbian Bed Death” and that is exacerbated for Alan, a freelance journalist, by the exhaustion and emotional triangulations of parenting. But Scott and Jason, a younger couple they met in a gay-dads group and get to know over dinners and play dates and Fire Island weekends during the course of kindergarten-application year, are wrestling with those issues more visibly. A venture capitalist and a painter who have been a couple for eight years and married for five, they have two boys, toddler Oliver and baby Clay; more saliently for the play’s theme, they have an agreement allowing certain kinds (but not other kinds!) of extramarital sexual entertainment. As is not uncommon with such arrangements, only one of the pair makes use of it, while the other gradually boils dry.
Scott and Jason’s marital accommodation does not at first seem likely to affect Rob and Alan’s; the older couple, despite the diminution of their sex life and Alan’s ambivalent parenting, is more stable, and mostly steers their interactions with the younger couple toward abstract discussions (is there a fidelity gene?) and concrete kvelling. Parnell hits all the social markers of this sort of child-centrism on the nose: the fall trips to Stone Barns to pick pumpkins, the South Beach poolside winter vacations. (Nicola and Ollie love to swim, we learn, as if they were the first children ever to do so.) When the parents pine for their pre-parenting days it is mostly in terms of luxuries now made inconvenient: travel to Venice and Cornwall; time to sleep and think. (The financial cost of parenting does not seem to be much of an issue for anyone.) But just as you’re about to rise up in revolt against this display of smug gay privilege, Parnell does several things to complicate it. First, he introduces a straight couple — Michael and Serena — with roughly the same issues. Michael, a friend of Alan’s since college, offers a bleak if pragmatic view of marriage during parenthood as a no-man’s-land in which cheating is all but unavoidable. So where does that leave the gay men’s marriages? Must they cheat doubly? It’s at that point that Parnell introduces his second complication, which I won’t spoil.
Not that the complication is a huge surprise to us, however much it may be to the characters. Dada Woof Papa Hot — the title derives from Nicola’s first four words — is not a mystery, at least not in terms of its plot, whose pieces fit together as smoothly and satisfyingly as the sliding puzzle platforms of John Lee Beatty’s sets. The psychological underpinnings of the men’s marriages (and the straight couple’s, for that matter) are not, however, so simply rationalized. In each pair, one spouse embraces the traditional idea that infidelity is a profound betrayal, while the other spouse feels that in the context of gayness (or perhaps merely a certain kind of maleness) fidelity is. For that latter group, marriage is a sexual prison, something Stonewall was supposed to have torn down forever. Their job is to rebuild it on more egalitarian (and more realistic) terms. For the others, the watchcry may well be, as Scott, in despair, finally puts it: “Isn’t being normal the most radical thing of all?”
It’s no surprise that in distributing these viewpoints, Parnell has assigned what might be called the more conservative stance to the psychiatrist and the venture capitalist; the more questioning spouses are the artists. That’s not quite a fair fight. On the one side, Rob, the shrink, is written (and perfectly played by Patrick Breen) as a hypercompetent fussbudget, loving but demanding, while, in the other couple, Scott, the venture capitalist, is not merely stodgy but a Republican. (Stephen Plunkett does his best with the underwritten role.) On the other side of the argument, both Jason, the painter, and Alan, the writer, flirt with narcissism as if it were an occupational hazard. Actually, Scott does more than flirt; he’s a professional seducer, with the body to prove it, courtesy of the actor Alex Hurt and his trainer. (The production, directed with simple confidence by Scott Ellis, also features John Pankow and Kellie Overbey as Michael and Serena, and Tammy Blanchard as another parent in their circle.) But at the heart of the play, John Benjamin Hickey as Alan is able to shape a very complicated set of givens — he is the oldest of the quartet, having come to New York just at the tipping point when libertinism gave way to AIDS — into a full and balanced expression of the dilemma. It’s a beautiful performance, no less so for seeming to be no performance at all.
The play doesn’t decide between Alan’s view of parenting as, at best, a difficult fit for gay men, and Rob’s view of gayness (in its pre-parenting incarnation) as inherently if understandably adolescent. What it does do is dramatize the effects of parenting on gay couples, regardless of their philosophy — effects that turn out to be much the same as on straight ones. As Parnell paints it, parenting involves the corralling of narcissism and its gradual conveyance, like a birthright, to one’s children, leaving almost none behind to keep the personality inflated. And that’s if you do it right. The job may not be harder for gay couples than straight ones, but it’s newer, which may be why the straight couples around me in the theater seemed to be laughing so much as my partner and I clutched our armrests. They seemed to be saying, along with the play: Now you know.
Dada Woof Papa Hot is at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater through January 3.