BWW Review: Dan Giles Takes Up Parenthood (And Homicidal Hamsters) In BREEDERS
When I posted a short reaction to BREEDERS on Facebook, a friend commented: "So the play compares gay men to hamsters!?" No, but Dan Giles traces, in parallel, the lives of a gay couple expecting the birth of a baby via a surrogate, and the lives of a bickering hamster "couple" expecting pups, to profitable and mostly entertaining ends.
The title itself reveals a certain irreverence toward something still more or less sacred in our society: parenthood. Those who, like me, opt out, are often pitted against those who choose this excruciatingly difficult, killingly expensive path. Non-parents often refer to parents as "breeders," or to themselves as "non-breeders."
Most breeders take this in stride, but I see umbrage taken on social media by touchy parents who resent the analogy between human and animal reproduction. And many without children, particularly women, report frustration with questions about their childlessness, especially if (unlike me), they are or were on the fence about having kids. Such women proceed to write tiresome, defensive blogs on the subject. All this functions as a backdrop for Giles' play, though the couple at its center isn't straight.
Mikey and Dean, now in their early 30s, have been dating since they were teenagers, when each was the only gay man the other knew. Mikey (the Alton Arburo), a successful young professional who does Crossfit and likes sports, is what Armistead Maupin called in Tales of the City an "A gay" (or at least a proto-A Gay, as he's still making his way up the socioeconomic ladder). Dean (Jacob Perkins) is a smart, nerdy, sensitive man who, by his own admission, looks like his mother still dresses him.
Tensions are high because the due date has passed and they've yet to receive a call from the flaky birth-mother. Dean, presumably with Mikey's consent, agrees to look after his baby half-sister's hamsters (because when your life is about to be turned upside down, you clearly need to take on new responsibilities).
Dean spends his days watching TV, reading parenting books, practicing his Rosetta Stone, and observing his rodent charges with increasingly obsessive focus. While Mikey is pragmatic and rational, Mikey is the Woody Allen figure, prone to doubt and neurosis (especially since he quit his job to be a stay-at-home father and thus lacks sources of "ego validation"). In short, a pretty typical couple.
The dynamic between the hamsters partly mirrors the one between Mikey and Dean. Tyson (Lea McKenna-Garcia) is a dominant, acerbic female worshipped by Jason, a naive, romantic, intellectually inferior male. Mikey is dominant but far kinder than Tyson, who attacks her adoring mate, leaving him without an eye. It's a violent business all around. Those inclined to believe that animals are kinder than humans may change their mind after BREEDERS.
Like Dean, Jason believes that love is the most important force in the universe. His favorite part of sex is hearing Tyson say that she loves him. Those three words take on almost mystical significance for him. Consequently, he thinks of nothing else after they have sex, which angers and alienates Tyson. She laments that they used to talk about other things and now speak only of their relationship. The anthropomorphic conceit works, partly due to Genevieve V. Beller's hamster suits and partly due to fine acting by McKenna-Garcia and Gonzalez, whose exchanges are punctuated by the word "nibble" as they nosh on the nutrient pellets.
By far the best writing in BREEDERS is the dramatic scene in which Dean gets cold feet about the baby and asks Mikey, "hypothetically," how he would feel if they backed out. The fight includes a delicious, dizzying rant by Dean about Neil Patrick Harris ("a spokesfaggot,"in his words). But the scene belongs to the talented Arburo, who plays the most layered character in the play.
Another high point comes late in the play when Dean, who did not in fact delete a gay dating app as earlier promised, invites a man to their apartment--not to have sex but to indulge a foot fetish of Dean's. Gonzalez plays a macho straight married father who sees men on the side. It's a stark contrast to the submissive hamster he plays opposite McKenna (who also doubles as Zoe). "You're like a sailor who just got home from Japan and I'm like a sailor who just got home from Vietnam, and we're meeting by the docks in San Francisco," he notes. Dean replies wryly, "Okay. But I think those are two different time periods."
The play's only significant flaw is its conclusion, which is anti-climactic and superfluous following, as it does, the powerful exchange between Dean and Zoe at the hospital bus stop. But BREEDERS, directed by Jaki Bradley, examines the trials of breeding with intelligence, feeling, and wit. And Brian Dudkeiwicz's deft scenic design (which evokes a low-budget version of the MTC City Center space) helps sustain the two storylines.