In 2018, Michael McKeever’s “Daniel’s Husband” made a splash Off Broadway. The gripping tragicomedy, directed by Joe Brancato, examined picking up the pieces after a medical calamity involving a gay man’s life partner. It also considered how family members can clash over a loved one’s welfare, the visceral power of art, and the yawning disconnect between gay men of different generations.
Now McKeever and Brancato are back with “Mr. Parker,” which explores these themes even further. The production is from Penguin Rep Theatre, where “Daniel’s Husband” originated, and is now playing at Theatre Row. And while the new endeavor is worth a recommendation, the drama fails to pack the emotional wallop of its predecessor, which, to be fair, set the bar quite high.
The play opens with grief-stricken, 54-year-old Terry Parker addressing the audience directly, as he does intermittently throughout the proceedings. He recounts how he lost his husband, a successful artist named Jeffrey, seven months ago (we later learn due to a car wreck). He was faced with the harrowing decision to cease life support measures. They were together for 30 years, living in New York City.
Last night, for the first time, Terry ventured out to a bar and met a sexy 28-year-old bartender/Uber driver and brought him back to his late husband’s tiny art studio in the East Village. The next morning, the lithe, chipper young man emerges from the bathroom naked, having just helped himself to coffee and a shower. Terry, hung over and disoriented, has blanked on his name (it’s Justin). Apparently, the sex was super hot.
What follows is an awkward pas de deux where the men get to know each other and navigate the cultural chasm presented by their age difference. For Terry, Justin offers a chance to press the restart button on a calcified life. But when Jeffrey’s sister and business manager Cassandra gets wind of the budding relationship, tempers flare and gauntlets are thrown. Is Justin helping or hindering Terry’s grief process? And will it distract Terry from preserving Jeffrey’s artistic legacy?
Derek Smith infuses the grumpy Terry with a heart-tugging air of pathos. It’s a pleasure to see his icy carapace begin to melt in the company of the high-spirited young hookup. Mia Matthews is well cast as the officious manager torn between her decades-long friendship with Terry and her impulse to protect her brother’s legacy.
Perhaps the most compelling turn is by Davi Santos, whose Justin is irresistibly charming and disarming, to both Terry and the audience. In his unaffected, effortless portrayal, Justin is no ditzy twink. His encyclopedic knowledge of New York history is impressive. And his observations, albeit clumsily delivered, are insightful beyond his years.
“We’re all so terrified about looking stupid that we make ourselves look even stupider trying not to look stupid,” Justin says after he tries to use a highbrow word to impress while searching for his underwear. Alas, the word choice is wrong but it only makes him more endearing.
In defending his zeal for history, Justin recites the adage “You can’t move forward without knowing from where you came.” But he can’t recall who said it, suggesting either Nietzsche or Hillary Clinton.
While the characterizations are intriguing, the play lacks the sharp wit and heightened drama we’ve come to expect from McKeever’s work. A vital revelation about the cause of the car wreck lands with a whimper. Certain motivations are baffling and detract from the narrative logic.
On the plus side, David Goldstein’s painstakingly detailed set design of a cramped artist’s studio nicely evokes a bittersweet archive of a life well lived. The room, dominated by a large overhead skylight, is stuffed with Jeffrey’s artwork, books, vintage Life magazines, a vinyl record collection, and tchotchkes. There’s also a cluttered desk with a landline phone and answering machine that actually still works.
“Mr. Parker” is a tender — if overly subdued — meditation on love, loss, and legacy. The work also imparts that technology, in the name of progress, can be alienating. Many folks over 50, or even 40, can relate to Terry’s annoyance when his Millennial companion is fiddling with his smartphone instead of being fully present.
“Communication has become a very sterile, very lonely thing,” Terry says of society’s obsession with texts and tweets.
Fittingly, the production requires Yondr pouches to stow phones. The aim is to “create a phone-free space” and prevent theatergoers from recording the brief frontal male nudity. Surely Terry would approve.
Mr. Parker | Penguin Rep | Theatre One at Theatre Row | 410 W. 42nd St. | Through June 25 | $25-$49 | bfany.org/theatre-row/ | 90 mins with no intermission