Kevin Kline’s 1997 film “In & Out,” about a closeted acting teacher who comes out and finds love, was the first time I ever saw two men kiss on the big screen in a mainstream movie theater.
At the time, another queer friend of mine opined about the film’s overall quality, saying, “Well, straight people get to watch mediocre romantic comedies, I guess we should, too.”
Peter Parnell’s “Dada Woof Papa Hot,” the latest offering from Pandora Productions, is far from mediocre. But it attempts to purposefully approach a similar idea in its theme, structure, dialogue and metafictional leanings. It asks, “What is the gay experience and what is gay theater, once it’s become respectable mainstream fare?”
In other words, what stories do we tell about queer culture when we are no longer a counter-culture?
The plot is very familiar — several couples with children deal with questions of love, parenting and fidelity. We’ve seen this story countless times, focused on straight parents.
At the center are Alan (Shayne Brakefield) and Rob (Drew Sutherland) with a decade-plus relationship and a 4-year-old child. For Alan, parenting isn’t easy, and he is all anxious energy and resentment, whereas Rob is a relaxed and natural dad.
They are joined by uptight Scott (Jason Cooper) and sexy cool Jason (Mitchell Martin), who have two kids, as well as Michael (Brent Gettelfinger) and Serena (Mandi Elkins Hutchins), who have some number of children, but after a while, who’s counting? Julia (Heather Green) portrays an actor whose husband is never seen, but whose (three?) children are screamed at, though not seen or heard.
Pandora doesn’t generally lack for decent performers, but this is a particularly strong cast that handles the slow-paced script with confidence and verve.
Brakefield has appeared at the center of a few Pandora shows, and he’s a reliable anchor, always bringing an authentic presence and honesty of emotion that sets the rest of the cast on the right path. As Alan, he is tense and anxious right up to the line of unlikability, but he keeps the audience rooting for him while making us experience his discomfort and anger.
Opposite Brakefield, Sutherland’s Rob is a needed calming presence. These two characters balance each other dramatically, creating a relationship that is unbalanced. Rob is tired of being the calm one, and Alan is tired of feeling anxious angry. Each, to some extent, blames the other for the strife this causes. Sutherland and Brakefield have an easy onstage chemistry that allows the audience to fully engage in the many disconnecting moments the two experience.
As Scott, Cooper once again gets to stretch his uptight and angry chops. For so long, this actor seemed to mostly offer us excellent camp and comedy, but it’s been great in the last few seasons to see him playing it — pardon the phrasing — straight. Here he is doing great dramatic work again, though he perhaps emotionally tips his hand a little early, undercutting some of the later revelations about why Scott is so uptight and angry.
As Scott’s significant other Jason, Martin is the show’s resident man candy, flirting it up with anyone and everyone. The suitably sexy Martin clearly relishes the opportunity to misbehave, but he solidly grounds his tom-catery in character, bringing a depth and complexity that is needed to keep Jason from becoming a caricature.
Again, all of these dynamics are common fodder for drama in the “grown-ups having grown-up problems” genre. What makes “Dada Woof” a little more interesting is the macro-situation. This sort of mainstream adulting and adultery is the terrain of the post-Obergefell v. Hodges world.
Each character struggles with the changes in the gay community in his own way, and each one mostly avoids being a stereotype. Alan, for example, lived in New York City in the ’80s, but he didn’t spend the decade in debauchery. Still, he mourns the loss of the gay culture’s out-there identity.
In other words, if straight people get to watch quiet meditations on the challenges of finding one’s place as they age and experience parenthood, I guess we should, too, only we’ll also consider how that meditation simultaneously examines the cultural shift of the ongoing revolution of sexuality and gender identity.
Director Michael Drury seems to have led this ensemble with an eye toward subtlety, realizing there’s no need for constant histrionics, though there are some nice blow-ups later on in the second act. These are all the more satisfying for the lack of melodrama in the first act.
Special attention should be paid to the excellent set, a collection of giant children’s blocks designed by Jill-Marie Schierbaum. They add some color and fun while also functioning as an easily transformable environment, keeping set changes brisk. They also serve a nice thematic reinforcement — Alan feels like the duties of caring for his child have taken over his life, shrinking anything else that was once important.
“Dada Woof Papa Hot” continues at the Henry Clay Theatre through Jan. 26. Tickets start at $20. The Henry Clay is located at 604 S. Third St.