Directing a musical is a major undertaking. So is planning a wedding. When confronted with the prospect of tackling both at the same time, most people would probably say, “No, thanks. The mere thought of doing that makes me want to stress-eat a pizza.”
But Christina Coakley and Michael Innocenti are not most people. That’s why they’re directing the Washington premiere of the musical “Dogfight,” which opens Saturday at the Keegan Theatre, and then getting married Sept. 5 — on that same stage.
“We’re insane,” Coakley, 29, offers as an explanation. “That’s the bottom line.”
Coakley and Innocenti — both Northern Virginia natives and lifelong lovers of theater whose April birthdays fall eight days apart — already had locked in their wedding date at the recently renovated Dupont Circle space when they were asked to direct “Dogfight,” a show the two had suggested for Keegan’s 2015-2016 season.
“We kind of looked at each other and said, ‘So I guess the show will open. And two weeks later, we’ll get married,’ ” says Innocenti, 33.
Coakley and Innocenti fell in love eight years ago while touring Ireland with a Keegan production of “Glengarry Glen Ross.” When they aren’t at the theater, they’re either at their Alexandria apartment or their day jobs, which happen to be in the same federal contractor’s office. (Innocenti jokes that Coakley’s only escape from him is sleep.) They’re so comfortable in each other’s orbit that spending an hour with the two of them is like being live witness to the closing vignettes from “When Harry Met Sally . . .,” but with a much younger couple.
Innocenti, Keegan’s production manager, is the self-described “talker” of the pair, often cracking jokes and expressing mock incredulity that his wife-to-be chose him as her partner. Coakley, the theater’s casting director and director of administration, is his straight woman, exuding an aura of “I got this” that implies that, on top of everything else, she could probably direct a second play and, possibly, help plan a bar mitzvah.
Both admit that while directing “Cabaret” at Keegan in 2013, their first such collaboration, they sometimes stepped on each other’s toes. They learned from that, however, and now, for “Dogfight,” they take turns leading rehearsals, then check in to make sure they’re on the same page.
“There are certain times when we are not in agreement on something, and we really have to argue it out,” Coakley says. “And the way we see that is, the best argument’s going to win.”
“It’s great having a second person who can say honestly to you, ‘That sucked,’ ” Innocenti adds. “And we don’t get hurt because, again, of our relationship.”
Having a woman and a man guiding the production of this particular show also seems like a smart call. “Dogfight” — based on the 1991 River Phoenix/Lili Taylor film and with music composed by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, whose latest show, “Dear Evan Hansen,” debuted last month at Arena Stage to enthusiastic reviews — is about a Marine named Eddie Birdlace who invites Rose, a shy San Francisco waitress, to a party. Only later does she realize she’s part of a “dogfight”: a competition between macho jarheads to see who can show up with the ugliest date. As a relationship begins to blossom from those awful beginnings, the play deals with such delicate subject matters as chauvinism and self-esteem.
“While I’ve always had body issues and anxieties and all that fun stuff,” Innocenti says, “I don’t know what it’s like to be a young woman in that particular circumstance, obviously. So it’s great to have someone who can talk to it.”
As they navigate the art of co-directing while consciously coupling, Innocenti and Coakley say it also helps to see others at Keegan who have achieved their own work/love balances. Several company members are in serious relationships, engaged or married, including Keegan artistic directors Mark and Susan Rhea, who wed in Ireland in 2003, and the “Dogfight” stage managers, Dan Deiter and Megan Thrift, who will marry at Keegan next year.
So as insane as it might be to put on a show and a wedding at the same time, it also feels exactly right that Coakley and Innocenti will say their vows in front of a fake Golden Gate Bridge, on the set of the play they’ve brought to life together.
“To be able to be here at Keegan, where it all began for us, is just icing on the cake,” says Innocenti, who proposed to Coakley after singing “Marry Me a Little” from the Sondheim show “Company.”
“There’s no other way we could think about doing this.”
Chaney is a freelance writer.
Keegan Theatre, 1742 Church St. NW. 202-265-3767. www.keegantheatre.com.
Dates: Saturday through Sept. 19.