Over salsa and cigars, Daryl and his best friend, Martin, hatch a plan. What if Daryl puts Martin's byline on the play about gay men that Daryl has written? See, Martin is gay and Daryl isn't, and Daryl is sure that no theater will touch a play about homosexuality by a straight man.
"It's only bad," Daryl explains, "if I wrote it."
The premise of "What Dogs Do," a genial if deeply flawed new comedy produced by Charter Theatre, has possibilities. (Will and Grace: Are you receiving?) The play, directed by Keith Bridges and staged in the tiny performance space at the National Conservatory of Dramatic Arts in Georgetown, has a jaunty informality that is enhanced by Christopher Lane's good-ol'-boy portrayal of Daryl.
The comic potential is seriously undermined, however, by playwright Chris Stezin's peculiar idea of an interesting character trait: Daryl is a homophobe. Has been for as long as Martin has known him, and that goes back to college, when Daryl moved out of the room they shared because he couldn't bear living with a gay man.
Man-to-man combat of the emotional variety is also explored in a new production by Project Y. "Sinking Up" is an evening of playlets for two men that surveys, among other things, the reunion of a young man and his gay father; the uneasy friendship of a pair of golfers at a driving range and the yin-yang relationship of two elderly brothers.
In "What Dogs Do," it's never clear why Daryl's closeness to Martin has not tempered his biases. Daryl casually refers to Martin by humiliating epithets, ridicules his boyfriend, Robert (Ray Ficca), and offers cave-man views on gay life. Granted, he's more evolved than his father (Dennis A. Dulmage), who won't invite Martin to his 40th wedding anniversary party. (Lest you imagine that Daryl simply doth protest too much, he has a girlfriend, played by Rachel Gardner, with whom he makes out passionately on the couch of his Atlanta apartment.)
Yet Martin, a software engineer, is forever showing up at Daryl's place to watch football, down a few brewskis and patiently absorb Daryl's insults. Which all leads to several basic questions. Why would a guy with deeply ingrained prejudices about homosexuality take it on himself to write a sympathetic play about gay men? Wouldn't his girlfriend -- a local theater director, no less -- be a little uncomfortable taking this boor into her crowd? And last but not least, what kind of head case is Martin?
Maybe an ingenious way exists to resolve these issues, but Stezin, who also plays Martin, does not unravel any of the tricky knots he's tied for himself. It would be easier to cut him some slack if he hadn't made Daryl's homophobia such a pivotal element of the comedy, the trigger for a climactic confrontation with Martin. The battle occurs after Daryl's play becomes a surprise hit.
Martin himself is an interesting creation, a Southern gay man without a scintilla of interest in any of the pastimes stereotypically assigned to gay characters. And Bridges directs at a lively pace, which allows you to enjoy some of the plot complications even as you're wondering what on earth binds Martin and Daryl to each other.
The mystery of male bonding also preoccupies the four playwrights of Project Y's "Sinking Up." Over the course of the four one-acts at the H Street Playhouse -- Stezin contributes a play to this evening, too -- actors Sam Elmore and Peter Schmitz present a variety of portraits of men trying to connect. It's difficult to summon a particularly engaging moment in any of these playlets; all four are embryonic and the men who populate them seem more like stick figures than fleshed-out creations.
Bracketing the one-acts is a series of demonstrations of improvised movement and dialogue by Elmore and Schmitz, who wrestle and spin and whisper and shout a lot. It's all very actor-y and, on occasion, just plain hard to watch. One traditional guy thing that they do extremely well is work up a sweat.
What Dogs Do, by Chris Stezin. Directed by Keith Bridges. Costumes, Maura McGinn. Approximately 2 hours. Through Jan. 26 at the National Conservatory of Dramatic Arts, 1556 Wisconsin Ave. NW. Call 202-333-7009 or visit www.chartertheatre.org.
Sinking Up, by Paul Donnelly, Chris Stezin, Andy Mitton and Dana Yeaton. Directed by David Snider. Approximately 2 hours. Through Feb. 1 at H Street Playhouse, 1365 H St. NE. Call 703-326-4355 or visit www.projectydc.org.