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Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

Any professional critic worth his or her salt strives to be fair, tactful, entertaining and, most of all, honest. To regularly gush or fawn over productions would cause us to lose our credibility. But every now and then, a play comes along that leaves us no choice but to gush.

Such is the case with Dezart Performs’ current production of Michael McKeever’s Daniel’s Husband.

The story is riveting, and the acting is some of the best I have seen on a local stage in the past 20 years. Though centered around the 2015 Supreme Court ruling legalizing gay marriage nationwide, the play is about so much more than that. It hits a whole lot of hot-button issues—commitment-phobic mates, overbearing mothers, age-inappropriate dating, dashed career dreams and navigating the legal system as common-law partners.

The play opens on a dinner party at the home of Daniel (Michael Shaw), a successful architect, and his partner, Mitch (David Youse), an equally successful author. Their guests are Mitch’s agent, Barry (Chuck Yates), and his new boy toy, Trip (Hanz Enyeart). The after-dinner small talk gets heated when Trip innocently asks why Daniel and Mitch aren’t married. They’ve been together for seven years and seem very happy, and gay marriage is legal now, so, Trip wonders … why not get hitched?

It is an issue the couple painfully wrestles with often. Daniel desperately wants to get married, while Mitch is adamantly against it. He loves Daniel deeply but does not respect the institution of marriage. He finds it old-fashioned and unnecessary—a concept foisted on mankind by religious zealots that has morphed into a money-making scheme. When pressed, Mitch fires back, “When did it become important for the gay community to be like everyone else?”

Meanwhile, Daniel is dreading the upcoming week-long visit by his mother, Lydia (Deborah Harmon). Widowed, wealthy and pushy, Lydia’s life is shallow and empty. She claims to love both Daniel and Mitch, “her boys,” and would also like to see them married—but underneath her smile is a controlling woman who can’t resist a veiled barb or two. Upon arrival, she invites the lesbians across the street to dinner, and insists that her son whip up a chicken dish he’s made in the past, because “everyone knows lesbians love chicken!” The tension between Daniel and Lydia is based largely on Daniel’s belief that his narcissistic mother is responsible for his late father’s failure to become a famous artist.

Without giving too much away, a sudden tragedy turns everything upside down, and brings up the old debate over whether blood is thicker than water.

Once again, Dezart’s artistic director, Michael Shaw, has made a brilliant choice with this play. Casting is always crucial, especially in a small ensemble piece like this, and here, it was spot on. Director Darin Anthony elicits amazing performances from each of his actors.

Shaw’s portrayal of Daniel is fabulous. He is sweet, funny and likable. The raw pain and desperation he feels over Mitch’s refusal to wed is palpable. What he’s on called to do as an actor is quite challenging, but Shaw pulls it off beautifully.

I have never seen Deborah Harmon be anything but terrific onstage, but she outdoes herself here as Lydia. Her breezy entrance, while dressed in pearls and perfectly coiffed, is memorable. Early on, she is hilarious, but her switch to a devious, cut-throat matriarch is quite effective.

Chuck Yates is equally as good as Barry. While his dating life is problematic—his attraction to decades-younger guys has not worked out well—he is the steadying presence in the story. Actors in less-flamboyant roles can sometimes get lost on the stage. Yates does not. Even when silently observing the action, he commands our attention.

As Trip, Hanz Enyeart is tremendous. Young, ditzy and flamboyant, the character of Trip is written to be a bit over the top, and Enyeart delivers, big-time. Yet later on, his poignant moments are authentic as well.

If I had to single out one performance, it would be that of David Youse as Mitch. We see immediately why Daniel loves him. He’s tall, rugged and affable. Both his passion for and commitment to Daniel are believable, as is his stubborn resistance to tying the knot. In the dramatic scenes toward the end of the play, Youse is simply stunning. Often one of the toughest things for actors to do onstage is just be still—to listen, absorb and just BE. Everyone in this cast nails that challenge, but Youse is outstanding.

Everyone on the production team did a bang-up job here. Special mention needs to be made of Thomas L. Valach’s set, which is simply perfection.

Love IS love—and Daniel’s Husband is magnificent.

Dezart Performs’ production of Daniel’s Husband is performed at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, Jan. 19, at the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, 314 S. Cahuilla Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $35 to $40. For more information, call 760-322-0179, or visit www.dezartperforms.com.

Published in Theater and Dance

The Coachella Valley Repertory Theatre has begun its first full season in the company’s wonderful new playhouse in Cathedral City—and, rather appropriately, this season’s theme is “New Beginnings.”

The opening show is Dinner With Friends, by playwright Donald Margulies. It won the Pulitzer Prize for drama back in 2000, along with a batch of other awards. Now … if you’re looking for a play full of action, this is not for you. If you’re looking for a catharsis-provoking tragedy that will have you wringing out your Kleenex, forget it. If you want an uproarious thigh-slapper of a comedy, move on. However … if you have ever wanted to be a fly on some wall where you could watch the interactions between people and see the changing of their relationships, this quiet play might interest you.

Dinner With Friends has a cast of four—all efficient actors who maintain a low-key approach to their work. The role of Beth is played by Corryn Cummins, a slender actress with a plump resume which includes work onstage, in film and on TV. Redheaded Beth, when we meet her, is finishing up dinner and vainly attempting to appear interested in the blathering of a married couple, Gabe and Karen, who are endlessly rattling on about their trip to Italy—specifically, about the food they encountered. It turns out that their profession is, in fact, writing about food, so it is of keen interest to them … though not so much to their friends.

The role of Gabe is brought to life by Scott Golden, a veteran of TV series and commercials as well as theater. Dark-haired Gabe is married, stable and solid, a family man keenly interested in all food and drink—a topic that occupies part of his brain in almost every scene, regardless of what else is going on.

His stolid brunette wife, Karen, is portrayed by Jennifer Sorenson, an actress and a dramatist in her own right. She brings a wide range of experience to the role of Karen, a woman with the casual air of a multitasker accustomed to juggling kids, husband, kitchen, friends and career—without raising an eyebrow.

Christopher Wallinger, who can be seen on everything from HBO to FX as well as the stage, plays Tom, Beth’s husband—although he is not present in the first scene. An attorney, he travels a lot, and when we meet him, Wallinger subtly shows us a Tom who is a slightly spoiled and entitled golden boy, despite his rather casual attire.

Director Darin Anthony captures the laid-back quality of the writing and inserts it into the actors’ movements and speech—in every scene. The audience will sense a restrained and drifting quality in the ambiance of the play, which prevents us from anticipating what will happen next. Many plays charge full speed ahead to their goal, but here, as in life, there are no big important signs flashing or foreshadowing every event that occurs. Hmmm.

A heads-up that you could miss if you don’t carefully read the program: The second act is a flashback to 12 years before to the first act.

As always, CVRep’s resident set designer comes through beautifully with scene changes that amaze: Jimmy Cuomo’s designs for each scene are moved in the dark or semi-dark, which is a bit of a disappointment, because it is such fun to watch his terrific sets morph from one to another. Moira Wilkie Whitaker’s lighting designs come through beautifully as well in each of the play’s seven scenes. Kudos to the entire CVRep crew members, who, as usual, have thoughtfully and professionally shared their skills.

I won’t give away the rather thin plot—but this play is all about relationships, and what happens to other people who are not directly involved when a sudden, enormous change occurs in someone else’s relationship(s). It has happened to all of us: A friend or relative goes through a transformation of some sort, and you react to it. This raises questions, such as: What do we really truly want for our friends? How is being married different from being single, beyond the obvious? Have we assigned labels or roles to our family and acquaintances that suddenly don’t apply when a person changes? Are true family members our blood relations, or the people we choose to be close to us? What are the necessary and/or sufficient ingredients that affect or alter the course of a relationship? Why do people grow in different directions after being together for years? Can you ever truly reinvent yourself?

Heavy stuff. We see the characters wrestle with denial, with differing views of reality, with the bonds of marriage and of friendship. We see them talk at the same time instead of listening to each other. We see them test their relationships, with varying results. We see people surrounded by other people—yet experiencing a deep loneliness. We see people unable to communicate their wants and needs—and the craters in relationships this can create. We see people blame others for their own choices. We see them wonder if they ever actually knew each other.

You get to be the fly on the wall watching all this.

Dinner With Friends is performed at 7:30 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, Nov. 24, the CVRep Playhouse in Cathedral City, 68510 E. Palm Canyon Drive. Tickets are $48 to $58. For tickets or more information, call 760-296-2966, or visit www.cvrep.org.

Published in Theater and Dance