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Who is Michael McKeever?

Who is Michael McKeever?
An interview with the author of Daniel’s Husband

Michael McKeever is the author of Daniel’s Husband, the remarkably powerful play that opened last week at Buffalo United Artists to the sort of explosive audience response that prompts people to ask, “Who is this guy?” and “Why have I never heard of him?”

If you haven’t heard of Michael McKeever, that’s probably because he is a “PLONY.” That’s a “Playwright Living Outside New York City.”

Being a PLONY comes with a specific set of challenges—just ask Donna Hoke, Western New York representative of the Dramatists Guild. She is part of a growing movement to aid the plight of the PLONY and a corresponding crisis in the American theater, in which resident regional theaters are slowly disappearing from mid-sized cities, placing an ever increasing emphasis on New York City as being the only town that matters. Studio Arena anyone? With Studio Arena gone from our theatrical landscape, it is much less likely that a career like Tom Dudzick’s could be launched from Buffalo. His sold out run of Over the Tavern in 1994 inspired a return engagement, and sequels, and established him as a major playwright.

Dudzick makes his living as a playwright. So does Michael McKeever.

McKeever is one of the most successful playwrights ever to come out of South Florida, where he makes his home. I almost wrote where he “still” makes his home, as there is certainly an expectation that once a playwright is successful in Chicago or…anywhere else, I can only really think of examples from Chicago (Seattle maybe? Boston? NOT Buffalo)…that playwright will immediately move to New York City. McKeever’s work includes 24 plays—many of them published, and numerous awards for that work, including an NEA Residency Grant, and being a three-time finalist for the Heideman Award.

Daniel’s Husband is the story of a gay couple, Mitchell and Daniel, played by Eric Rawski and Michael Seitz. They live an idyllic life together. As the play begins, Daniel’s intrusive mother, Lydia, played by Anne Hartley Pfohl, a woman with no real life of her own, is about to pay a visit. Daniel wants to marry Mitchell. Mitchell thinks the whole idea is absurd. Why do gay people need to marry? Isn’t our love enough?

The play starts out like a gay version of a Neil Simon comedy. The mother is straight out of Barefoot in the Park, and so is the relationship between the two men, with its inconsequential bickering. Then fate intervenes. Daniel is stricken with a neurological condition that leaves him unable to communicate—“Locked-in Syndrome”—he is entirely aware, but due to complete paralysis, he cannot move or control any voluntary movement, not even the blinking of his eyes. His loving mother sues for custody.

The audience begins on the journey of a playful romantic comedy, but ends up riveted to potent and compelling drama.

I reach McKeever at his home—in South Florida—and ask him about his decision to start the world of his play within the context of romantic comedy.

“I tend to be a very specific writer,” says McKeever. “I like a bare bones structure. Everything in one of my plays has a point. In the early scenes, I want to define the characters as they are before the crisis. I want the audience to see the idyllic life that Mitchell and Daniel share. I want to establish very clearly that these two men are the only meaningful element of Lydia’s life, that she is in no way homophobic, and that she loves her son, and his partner, very deeply.”

There are moments when the audience gasps audibly at Lydia’s actions, as when she asserts her “right” to have custody of her son, or when she insists that there is “no villain,” and that she is “not the enemy.”

“I absolutely did not want a situation in which Lydia was the cliché of a homophobic parent, unable to understand her son or approve of his relationship,” says McKeever. “She is someone who dotes on Daniel to the point of being a nuisance in his life, but it all comes from love. And perhaps even control. A person can be entirely self-centered and still love someone very much. A person might not even realize that they are that selfish person. I make a point when she says, ‘my boys,’ ‘my Mitchell,’ ‘my lesbians.’ It’s always ‘my,’ ‘my,’ ‘my,’ but she doesn’t realize what she is doing with that.”

In McKeever’s deft and layered script, there is one moment when Lydia refers to her son Daniel and Mitchell as “my boys,” and in the BUA production, Daniel pulls away. In her next line, she asks her Daniel if she was a good mother. He equivocates.

McKeever’s other plays include 37 Postcards, a comedy about a young man who returns home to a chaotic family after eight years abroad; Clark Gable Slept Here, a comedy about a Hollywood star who is trying to charm his way through the Golden Globe Awards ceremony while his staff tries to figure out what to do with the dead male prostitute on the bedroom floor of his hotel suite; The Garden of Hannah List, a drama set in Nuremburg during the Third Reich, in which a German widow quietly launches her own discreet and lethal assault against the Nazis; and Hand of God, a drama about a priest who believes he has had a vision of St. Jude, and finds himself labeled delusional.

All of these plays have been highly praised.

I ask McKeever about his prolific output and the subjects for his plays, wondering if his process is informed by his parallel career as a very successful actor.

“Straight through my 20s I worked in advertising and for television, so I learned to write quickly and I learned to write for deadline. I am drawn to history and am interested in the social context of historical events. I am an avid reader of newspapers. When something clicks with me, I tend to do a lot of research, just for my own edification, and then from that informed point of view, stories begin to evolve. In any given day, I will be thinking about two or three different ideas or concepts. And while my actual process of writing is very quick, I will have been thinking about an idea for five or six month, or even a year, before I write a word.

Daniel’s Husband came to me because I had ‘[the marriage] conversation’ with my partner,” he reveals. “Over the past year, my point of view has completely changed, because of the simplicity of his argument. After years of friendly debate, he simply argued, ‘because we can do it now and it is a simple human right.’ In the face of that, the arguments against just fall away.”

The BUA production of Daniel’s Husband continues on the Main Stage of the Alleyway Theatre, Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm through November 7th.

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