Gays With Kids writer David Dodge reviews the new gay play “DADA WOOF PAPA HOT” and talks with playwright Peter Parnell and director Scott Ellis, currently at the Lincoln Center Theater in New York City. To take advantage of the special discount ticket price of just $55 (regular $87) for any performance now through January 3, register with code DWPHGWK55.
Move over “Kinky Boots," there’s a new gay show in town. But unlike the sparkle, glam, and drag we’ve come to expect from most Broadway shows with a queer focus, Peter Parnell’s “DADA WOOF PAPA HOT,” directed by Scott Ellis, gives the theatrical treatment to a newer area of the LGBTQ experience: parenthood.
“DADA WOOF” opens with a couple, Alan (John Benjamin Hickey) and Rob (Patrick Breen), dining with fellow gay dad couple Jason (Alex Hurt) and Scott (Stephen Plunkett). But as the couples discuss the banality of all things parenthood and marriage – “What kindergarten did you get into?” “What doctor do you use?” “Let’s arrange a play date!” – I found myself hoping a confused “Kinky Boots" queen might stumble into the wrong theater to liven things up with a death drop or two.
That, however, is exactly the point (or one of several) that “DADA WOOF” is attempting to make: In the era of gay marriage, gay parenting, and gay divorce – which, in most respects, all look pretty damn similar to their straight equivalents – what does it really mean to be “gay” anymore?
This is a question embodied most obviously in the show’s character, Alan, who waxes poetic throughout the show about his slow descent into heteronormativity. Alan finds himself bemoaning a sexless marriage, for example, right alongside his straight friend Michael (John Pankow); or worrying that the music blasting from his neighbor’s Fire Island share might disturb nap time.
It’s a not so subtle reminder to the gay men in the audience that, not all that long ago, these qualms were once the domain of our heterosexual brethren. The sentiment reaches its pinnacle about halfway through the show when Alan utters a simple phrase: “I just don’t feel gay anymore.”
It’s a controversial statement when you think about it. What does it mean to not “feel gay” anymore when a gay man marries and becomes a parent? Are gay men somehow less part of the LGBT community when they start families? Do we forfeit our gay card once we’re too busy with soccer practice and couples counseling to be bothered to douse ourselves in glitter and head to a Robyn concert?
Controversial, maybe; but judging by the number of heads I saw nodding in the theater following Alan’s pronouncement, it would seem the struggle to reconcile one’s sexuality with marriage and parenthood is one with which many a gay dad wrestles.
“Historically, as gay men, we have been defined by our sexuality,” Peter said, when I asked him why he thought gay dads might connect with Alan's predicament. “But the very act of being parents, and dealing with childhood, de-eroticizes sex. I think as gay dads we are always aware of that kind of tension.”
But for Peter, the phrase “I just don’t feel gay anymore,” isn't just about Alan's personal struggles. It also speaks to a larger cultural moment in which we find ourselves as a community, particularly since same-sex marriage, the cornerstone of the LGBTQ community’s fight for equality for the last decade, was legalized earlier this year by the Supreme Court.
“Journalists especially have been asking: Where do we go from here? How much have we been assimilated into the culture? How much outside the culture are we still? And what about those of us who self-identity as being outsiders, especially those of us who are older? That’s a question that [Alan] is asking for many of us.”
That marriage and children are now accessible to gay men is something that Peter marvels at, and he credits our access to such a heteronormative lifestyle to the considerable losses suffered by the gay community.
“We gained legal protections that were the emotional payout of the AIDS crisis,” Peter said plainly. “It’s in no way over, but there’s been an extraordinary change. We lost so many of us, and yet, in losing so many of us, so many straight people were touched by the losses of sons and family members and lovers. And then we fought for protection, and then institutionalized protection, for loved ones.”
But “DADA WOOF“ isn’t a play about the AIDS crisis. It’s also not about drag queens, or hedonistic revelry on Fire Island. But the very lack of these components in what is still ultimately a “gay” play is what is so notable; for Alan, a character who came of age at a time when being gay was more narrowly defined, is it any wonder, now that he’s married with children, that he finds himself in the midst of a gay identity crisis?
In their work on “DADA WOOF,” neither the show’s writer, Peter Parnell, nor director, Scott Ellis, needed to dig too deep for inspiration – both are gay, in long-term relationships, and are fathers to 6-year-old children.
“I’ve never been in a room where I was as confident about what I was talking about,” Scott laughed, noting that most of the cast, including the two leads, are childless. “It felt great to be able to say, ‘You want to hear another story about what it’s like having kids? Well, this is my experience.’”
Another similarity between Peter and Scott: They both became fathers slightly later in life than most. And the generational difference between younger and older gay parents serves as an undercurrent throughout “DADA WOOF.”
“Marriage and kids were never even a possibility when I was growing up,” Scott said, who along with his husband is a father to 6-year-old twins, a boy and a girl. But in today’s world, it's an unavoidable topic. “You’ll just have to talk about it. If you are coupled up, and certainly if you are married, children will just have to be discussed. That wasn’t the case 10 years ago.”
For Peter, much of the impetus for writing "DADA WOOF” came from his experience of becoming a father later in life. “[My husband] Justin and I had been in a long-term relationship as a pair for so long,” Peter said. He and Justin, in fact, had been together 14 years before their daughter came into their lives. “It was just the two of us for so long. So there were some interesting feelings about what happens when a young child comes to a couple who, until then, had been a family.”
When his daughter was younger, Peter’s household began to experience some things likely familiar to many parents: insecurities about being a first-time father, competitiveness between parents, and thoughts of whether or not the child loves one parent more than the other. “I would talk to straight friends and they’d say, ‘Oh, that’s going to change.’ And I’d think, Well, maybe it’ll change, but who knows? Especially when it’s two guys.”
So was Peter saying there is something inherently different about the experience of gay and straight parenthood?
“No, I don’t think I’m saying that,” Peter said thoughtfully after a moment. He admitted, though, that it’s a question he poses but leaves intentionally unanswered in his play.
“I think we’re going to find out where the similarities and differences are over time. I didn’t pose an answer; I pose a question. Where are there similarities? Where are there differences?”
Intentional or not, there are examples of where “DADA WOOF“ draws some distinctions about the gay parenting experience, an obvious example being the various paths to parenthood gay men have to choose from compared to our straight counterparts. Do you adopt or foster? Do you co-parent? Do you use a surrogate and an egg donor?
“DADA WOOF“ explores the experience of the latter, and some of the questions that can arise when only one part of a couple is biologically related to a child. In one scene, for example, Alan and Rob are attempting to put their three-year-old daughter to bed, but she wants a scary story read to her first. Alan tries to read her the story, but the little girl cries out for her father Rob to read it instead.
On the surface, it’s an innocuous moment, one that could unfold in any household, straight or gay. But it takes on special significance for Alan, as the non-biological parent, and the character wonders aloud: Does biology play a role in his daughter’s preference for Rob?
“I didn’t think it would matter,” he says ominously, about his decision to allow his husband the opportunity to be the biological parent.
Infidelity is another interesting theme throughout “DADA WOOF,” and one that takes many forms depending on the couple in question. One couple finds a sexual dalliance outside the confines of marriage acceptable, for instance, others view it as a transgression.
“In gay relationships, we’ve certainly had more fluid rules in the past,” Scott said. “But how do those rules translate when you’re parents and married? Does it get redefined?”
Peter never claims that the subject of open relationships is something specific to gay dads – obviously plenty of lesbian and straight couples have experience with the matter as well – but the play does seem to underline the complexities that can accompany a more fluid arrangement when kids and marriage enter the picture.
“I think everybody, but especially older gay dads, are still dealing with the history of being outsiders in the culture,” Peter said of these difficulties. “And I’ve been specific in balancing the play both in terms in what’s happening in the gay and straight marriages, even if things turn out differently for each couple.
Whether you’re a gay or straight, older or younger, or biologically related to your kids or not, “DADA WOOF” will strike a chord in most parents. And despite any differences the play highlights, ultimately “DADA WOOF” seems to say that the shared experience of parenthood does more to erase disparities between parents rather than create them.
“You’re a parent first,” Peter said. “There is a connection that happens between parents just from the fact that your children are becoming friends with one another. So if you are parents with kids that are the same age, you’re going through the same thing. It’s a bonding experience.”
Scott agreed. “I see absolutely no difference between gay and straight parents, or with sex and marriages,” he added. “How does it all change over the years? I'm finding it's not all that different." He did note, however, one unintended consequence of a household headed by two men.
“My partner and I have no taste when it comes to girls’ clothes,” he laughed. “Our daughter sometimes looks like one of the Golden Girls. How can two gay men be so bad at this? So we’re desperately reaching out to our women friends saying, ‘Please, take our daughter shopping!’”
But if the only real difference between gay and straight families is that we can’t help but dress our daughters like Sophia Petrillo, then maybe Peter’s antihero, Alan, is right: Maybe we do lose a bit of our "gayness" when we embark on a path towards marriage and fatherhood.
And as we move towards embracing the historically “hetero” institutions of marriage and family – institutions from which we’ve long been excluded – maybe we do risk becoming so integrated into the dominant culture that the only place we’re likely to see a drag queen anymore is right alongside the pearl-clutching Midwestern tourists who populate the balcony seats of “Kinky Boots.” (And even then, only if we can find a sitter in time.)
Is assimilation such a bad thing? Peter, again, leaves this question unanswered. But at least one view of “DADA WOOF” is that it serves as a sort of warning to the would-be gay parents of the world – tread carefully, fellow homosexuals, or risk assimilation into a white picket-fenced cybernetic Borg from which you’ll never escape.
“Some might see the play as a cautionary tale,” Peter admitted, but that’s not necessarily what he’s attempting to convey with “DADA WOOF.” By way of example, he points out that his character Alan, who struggles throughout most of the play to reconcile his identities as a gay man, husband and father, ends up in a much difference place by the end of the show.
“He goes on a journey of self-involvement,” Peter says. “He’s learning to listen to the needs of the child and place those need in front of his own needs. It’s one all parents know. There’s enormous truth in parenthood and it brings enormous gifts with it. It’s not without its challenges, of course, but if you go into this being mindful, with eyes open, you can learn to place the needs of another before you. And then parenthood can bring great gifts.”
But so, too, of course, can drag queens.