Michael McKeever moves through life with stories running through his mind, usually three at any given time.
No, he’s not crazy.
Triple threats — performers who can act, sing and dance equally well — are common in the world of theater. McKeever is another kind of theatrical triple threat, an award-winning playwright, actor and set designer who is having a moment in which all of his talents are being showcased. Shining brightest in that spotlight: the Island City Stage world premiere of Daniel’s Husband, McKeever’s thoughtful, emotional play about gay marriage.
It’s the work of a celebrated South Florida playwright, a rare writer who earns a comfortable living through his plays, which have won him the region’s Carbonell Award for best new work a half-dozen times.
McKeever is also a Carbonell-winning actor who was honored in 2014 for his performance in Island City Stage’s production of The Timekeepers, and nominated again for his work in Terrence McNally’s Mothers and Sons at GableStage last fall.
And he’s a set designer and graphic artist, a legacy of his training at the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale and his early-career work at a South Florida production company.
As if that weren’t enough, he’s also one of the four founders of Miami’s Carbonell-winning Zoetic Stage, a teacher of playwriting at the New World School of the Arts, and the eastern Florida regional representative for the national Dramatists Guild.
More than one person in his sizable networks of friends and collaborators calls McKeever “a theatrical renaissance man,” and he is. Drive, discipline and talent factor into his success, as well as something he remarked on in 1998, just two years into his playwriting career: “I have the energy of a manic 12-year-old.”
McKeever, who just celebrated his 53rd birthday, still does. The Italian-Irish-American with the penetrating blue eyes, a man whose spirit embodies joie de vivre, still looks remarkably similar to the way he did when he decided to give up advertising for theater.
As of May 28, theater fans will be able to sample the variety of McKeever’s skills on three South Florida stages.
He’s playing the appealing, self-deluded Will in the Actors’ Playhouse production of Karen Zacarías’ The Book Club Play at the Miracle Theatre in Coral Gables through June 7. Through May 31, the audiences will see the Zoetic production of Harold Pinter’s Betrayal at Miami’s Arsht Center unfold on a McKeever-designed set. And a brand-new McKeever play, Daniel’s Husband, will get its Island City Stage world premiere in Fort Lauderdale, previewing May 28-29 and opening May 30.
McKeever knows that this confluence of shows displaying the spectrum of his talents is unusual, but it’s not really so surprising. Over his nearly 20-year career, he has written 14 full-length comedies, 10 dramas and 18 short plays — and those are just the ones that have been produced (he has others). His thematically eclectic work has been produced at theaters throughout South Florida and around the country, as well as in Germany (he’s very popular there), Austria, Switzerland, Sweden, Poland, Canada and Russia.
Why so productive?
“From working in film and advertising in my 20s, I learned the importance of deadlines,” he says. “I think that’s why I’m so prolific. I give myself a deadline for a first draft. You get it done, then you can develop it. The world is filled with unfinished plays.”
McKeever does make his deadlines. But like many a journalist, he sometimes pushes them. Artistic directors who want to work with him have learned to have faith he’ll come through.
Andy Rogow, Island City Stage’s artistic director, laughs when he’s asked what it was about Daniel’s Husband — a witty, surprising, devastating play about a longtime gay couple at odds over getting married — that made him want to premiere and direct it.
“I literally produced it on the trust that Michael would write a good play. He described the plot, and I’d produced his work before,” Rogow says. “The script is really moving and timely. I like the fact that there are no villains, that everyone is trying to do the right thing. When we had the reading [at Lynn University in Boca Raton], I was surprised by how many people were teary afterwards.”
Nicholas Richberg, currently playing Jerry in Zoetic’s Betrayal, has been in three McKeever-written plays. He starred opposite the playwright in the Caldwell Theatre Company’s 2011 world premiere of Stuff, a work about wealthy real-life hoarders Langley and Homer Collyer that won the Carbonell Award as best new work. Yet when rehearsals began, only the first act was finished.
“He wrote that second act in two weeks and literally didn’t change a word. It was just all there,” Richberg says. “He has such a distinct voice. He writes as an actor, he understands rhythm. If you trust what he writes, it works. It’s amazing how little he has to rewrite during the development process.
Angie Radosh has played opposite McKeever three times, as the mother of his character’s late partner in Mothers and Sons, as his stage diva mother in McKeever’s Open Season, and as the Collyers’ mother in Stuff. He is, she says, “a generous actor, a generous person and a generous playwright.”
Carbonell winner Michael Leeds, who directed McKeever in The Timekeepers, echoes Radosh regarding McKeever’s generosity. He also believes that McKeever’s writing informs his acting, and vice versa.
“As a writer, he’s used to looking beneath the text. Words are the traffic on the river of emotion,” Leeds says. “I’ve seen his growth, both as a playwright and an actor. His melding of drama and humor just gets stronger. He looks at intriguing situations and finds an angle into them.”
McKeever’s body of work is eclectic, to put it mildly. He has written about a hate crime (A Town Like Irving), closeted gay Hollywood (Clark Gable Slept Here), an evolving Miami (first in Melt, aka The Miamians, then in Moscow), artists (The Impressionists and South Beach Babylon), 1930s Germany (The Garden of Hannah List and Dangerous) and more. His most-produced play, Suite Surrender, is a screwball farce. But his output runs the gamut from light to dark.
“I think it goes back to my days in advertising, selling everything from furniture to seat belts to AIDS awareness. I’m fascinated by so many different things — different people, different foods, different cultures, history,” McKeever says. “I’ve always attempted to not write the same play twice. You have to push yourself past your boundaries. So I’ll write a drama, then a comedy. I go back and forth.”
Daniel’s Husband represents another dive into a subject that has long intrigued him: gay marriage. He had wanted to write the play for a long time, and when same-sex unions became legal in Florida, “it made the play better and more interesting.”
In the play, an architect named Daniel Bixby (Alex Alvarez) and his longtime partner, novelist Mitchell Howard (Antonio Amadeo), are at odds on the subject of marriage. Daniel fervently wants to wed. Mitchell, with equal fervor, does not. When life takes a sudden, terrible turn, the stakes are brought into sharp relief.
The play also reflects its author’s evolution on the subject.
McKeever lives in Davie with Zoetic artistic director Stuart Meltzer, his partner of nearly a dozen years, on the same block where his brother Ted McKeever (a renowned comic book writer and artist), sister-in-law and their widowed mother live. The elder McKeevers were married for 57 years before the senior Ted McKeever passed away in 2013. Family, immediate and extended, has always been important to the playwright. Marriage, not so much.
“I grew up in a household with a solid, long marriage. I thought gay people didn’t have to fall into the conformity of marriage, that it was a perk we had. I saw friends in their 30s and 40s getting divorced. Then suddenly, all my gay friends were saying, ‘I want to get married,’” McKeever says. “Over time, my opinion has evolved. I believe it’s a right everyone should have.”
McKeever and Meltzer aren’t married, though they wear matching rings and refer to each other as “my husband.” They work together and separately — Meltzer is a New World faculty member who directs productions there as well as Zoetic’s shows at the Arsht Center — and serve as each other’s first audiences, editors and honest critics.
Meltzer, who is nine years younger than McKeever, has observed the growth in his partner’s work.
“There is certainly a deeper sense of gravitas, a deeper sense of storytelling, and a deeper and more committed sense of himself as an actor,” he says. “Daniel’s Husband is very personal. It’s largely Michael’s evolution on the subject. He didn’t understand the need for marriage, and now he gets it. ... I was very separate from that script, but I was at the reading at Lynn. It tapped into something in me that was very real and raw. It was an honest account of Michael’s feelings.”
As for a “McMeltzer” marriage (that’s their version of “Brangelina”), McKeever is careful to keep his plans private. But the way he expresses his reluctance to talk about the subject gives a hint.
“It’s an old-school Italian thing,” he says. “If you say it out loud, it makes you afraid it won’t happen.”
If you go
What: World premiere of ‘Daniel’s Husband’ by Michael McKeever.
Where: Island City Stage production at Empire Stage, 1140 N. Flagler Dr., Fort Lauderdale.
When: Previews 8 p.m. May 28-29, opens 8 p.m. May 30; regular performances 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 5 p.m. Sunday, through June 28.
Information: 954-519-2533 or www.islandcitystage.org.