Ryan Spahn and Matthew Montelongo star in Michael McKeever's Daniel's Husband, directed by Joe Brancato, for Primary Stages at the Cherry Lane Theatre.
Ryan Spahn and Matthew Montelongo star in Michael McKeever's Daniel's Husband, directed by Joe Brancato, for Primary Stages at the Cherry Lane Theatre.
(© James Leynse)

Same-sex marriage is the law of the land in the United States, for now. That doesn't mean that every gay American has fully bought into an institution steeped in conservative and religious tradition. Michael McKeever tackles that internal conflict in Daniel's Husband, now making its New York City debut with Primary Stages at the Cherry Lane Theatre. For a play that wears its agenda on its sleeve, it is surprisingly heartrending.

We don't expect to get as worked up as we eventually do, especially since the play starts like so many others these days: Four men sit around a Noguchi coffee table in a comfortable living room drinking white wine and talking about an important issue, in this case, gay marriage. Mitchell (Matthew Montelongo) doesn't believe in it (ironically, he makes his living as a romance novelist). But his partner of seven years, Daniel (Ryan Spahn), not only believes in marriage, but wants to marry Mitchell.

Ryan Spahn, Lou Liberatore, Leland Wheeler, and Matthew Montelongo sit around a Noguchi table and sip white wine in Daniel's Husband.
Ryan Spahn, Lou Liberatore, Leland Wheeler, and Matthew Montelongo sit around a Noguchi table and sip white wine in Daniel's Husband.
(© James Leynse)

Their two guests for the evening are Mitchell's agent, 49-year-old Barry (Lou Liberatore) and his latest boyfriend (emphasis on boy), Trip (Leland Wheeler). At the tender age of 23, Trip has never lived an adult life in which wedding another man wasn't an option. He can't really understand why Mitchell wouldn't want to marry a guy as great a Daniel: a brilliant architect who makes a mean crème brûlée (Spahn, who plays an overworked yet ultra-competent gay millennial like nobody's business, easily convinces us of his perfection).

"I find it outdated, musty and fundamentally wrong. An antiquated contract based more on financial and communal gain than the result of any true emotional connection," Mitchell asserts with unwavering confidence. When Trip points out all the legal and financial rationales for marriage, Mitchell responds, "We've gone to our lawyer and had all of that taken care of." But life has a way of humbling even those with the best-laid plans.

At least a playwright with a transparent agenda does. To avoid spoilers, it's best not to say more than this: McKeever sets up the dominoes in a manner that makes it completely clear what will happen when he knocks down the first one with a swift, merciless flick of the finger. That contrivance fully in view, Daniel's Husband is basically a gay morality tale: A Christmas Carol in which Scrooge is a woofy upper middle class Gen Xer with lots of opinions about religion and the patriarchy.

But as with the best of such stories, we take it to heart and think about what we would do in a similar situation. A lot of this has to do with an incredibly moving performance from Montelongo. We quickly forgive him his hubris when we see just how much he loves Daniel and wants the best for him. Spahn and Montelongo have the affable chemistry of a couple we all want to succeed. We feel his indignation in our guts when it seems that the world is conspiring against them.

Lydia (Anna Holbrook) meets Barry (Lou Liberatore) as Mitchell (Matthew Montelongo, center) looks on in Daniel's Husband.
Lydia (Anna Holbrook) meets Barry (Lou Liberatore) as Mitchell (Matthew Montelongo, center) looks on in Daniel's Husband.
(© James Leynse)

Next of kin and less than kind, Anna Holbrook plays Daniel's terror of a mother, Lydia. She swills a mimosa as she badmouths Daniel's deceased father, quickly asking for another after she mentions how thrilled she is to have a gay son. Fabulous and sassy, Lydia is the primary comic relief in this play and also its chief antagonist, a contradiction that Holbrook embodies beautifully. She's a sparkling glass of champagne laced with arsenic.

While Joe Brancato has directed his actors to thoughtful and emotional performances, we wish he could have conceived a staging that didn't rely so heavily on black-clad stagehands bustling around in the dark during transitions. Still, the design hits all the right marks: Brian Prather's set is stylishly modern yet comfortable-feeling, a convincing natural habitat for a gay architect of impeccable taste. Similarly, Jennifer Caprio's costumes are chic without drawing focus. William Neal's original music provides an appropriately menacing underscore for our stewing thoughts during the transitions, leading to one conclusion: This nightmare scenario absolutely could happen to us.

Matthew Montelongo plays Mitchell in Daniel's Husband.
Matthew Montelongo plays Mitchell in Daniel's Husband.
(© James Leynse)

While a braver dramatist would leave room for a convincing opposition or murkier circumstances, McKeever makes his case forcefully and effectively: Yes, marriage is a legal contract that is more about financial concerns than love, but why wouldn't you want to give the person you love the gift of financial and legal stability? Marriage isn't for everyone, but it is still the best option for those who intend on sharing a lifetime with another human being.