It is rare that the name Michael McKeever comes up without the adjective “prolific” attached to it. In the 21 years since the Davie playwright’s work was first produced in South Florida, he has written 27 full-length plays and countless short plays, probably between 20 and 24, by his offhanded estimate.
Because he enjoys performing, McKeever often appears in his own plays (After, Clark Gable Slept Here) or those of others (The Timekeepers, The Normal Heart). And hearkening back to a former career as an art director, he frequently designs his stage sets and posters.
If sleep has to be sacrificed to fit all this into the day, so be it. “So now, in the past 5 years or so, when I’m writing, I’ll wake up at 4 or 5 o’clock, make my coffee, come out here,” to his spacious home office, “and write. It’s that quiet time of the morning. I’ll write sometimes from 5 to noon. Sometimes, when it’s going well, I can write the whole day.”
McKeever is, after all, on a roll. This spring, soon after he won a best new work Carbonell Award – his seventh – for the school violence drama After, his gay marriage play, Daniel’s Husband, opened to acclaim off-Broadway at the Cherry Lane Theatre. Last month, he premiered an art history comedy, Finding Mona Lisa, at Actors’ Playhouse to the approval of reviewers and audiences alike.
In late November, he unveils The Camp, a look at a Nazi concentration camp soon after World War II, at Boca Raton’s Jewish Community Center, followed in the late spring by yet another new play, Mr. Parker, at gay-themed Island City Stage in Wilton Manors.
McKeever is unfazed by such an exhaustive output. “Here’s the thing. Because that’s what I do — knock on wood — I’m blessed,” he says. “I don’t have a full-time job outside of the theater. This is how I make my money. And it’s all things I love to do, so to me it’s not work. If it ever becomes work, I’ll go itchy about it.”
Still, having so many world premieres in such a short time is remarkable. He manages it because he has gained the trust of area theaters by always delivering a quality script on deadline. They commit to a slot in their season for him based on just a one- or two-sentence pitch of what he has in mind.
The now-defunct Caldwell Theatre debuted his 2011 history-based Stuff, about the hoarding Collyer brothers of Harlem, the first play by McKeever to be added to a season line-up before it was written.
“That was a pitch to Clive (Cholerton, the Caldwell’s artistic director) and he went, ‘OK, done’,” recalls McKeever. “I wrote Act One. It was maybe three weeks before rehearsals were to begin and Act Two wasn’t written, but Clive was unbelievably patient and it all worked out.”
McKeever has made more than a few directors and casts nervous about when a new script will arrive, but as a matter of personal pride he says, “I have never not delivered. The first draft may not be good, but it’s there.”
Take After, which he pitched to Zoetic Stage and its artistic director, Stuart Meltzer, who happens to be McKeever’s partner of 14 years and – as of Monday – his husband.
The pitch? “What happens to families after a school shooting? The victims, the shooter, what happens to those people after all the news cameras go home and everyone stops talking about it?” he wondered after an actual school shooting, probably Sandy Hook, “and my heart just broke for these parents. And I’m going, ‘What emptiness will face them, not tomorrow, not next week, but six months down the road when everything’s calmed down and everyone’s stopped holding your hand.’ ”
After is typical of McKeever’s later plays, which have grown increasingly darker and more dramatic, but still with some of his signature humor. “As the play was originally conceived, it began the day after the funeral of the students who were killed. The mother of the shooter goes to the funeral and that starts the whole thing. It occurred to me, ‘My God, this is beyond “Long Day’s Journey into Night,” it’s just so sad.’ I said, ‘I’ve gotta have some levity, to earn getting to that place.’ And the only way to get to that levity is to go before.
“‘After’ was written in three parts – before, during and after – three separate scenes,” explains McKeever. “But even when the third act was done, on the page, the actors read it and it just wasn’t right. So I went back and I rewrote it. I took two steps backwards and that was way wrong. So I took another shot at it, the third time was still not right. Then I took all the best elements of those versions, put it in the final version and that was it.
“I think it showed that not only was I confident that we’d get to a solid ending, but the cast and the director were as well. No one was panicking along the way. I said, ‘I’ll bring in new copy tomorrow.’ And every night, 11, 12 o’clock, I would send an email with a new pdf of that third scene to the stage manager. She’d print them out in the morning and we’d go.”
Success is a remarkable confidence builder. “I’m not burdened by the insecurities that I had to carry when I was 30 years old and writing my first plays,” McKeever notes. “If something doesn’t work, I know that I’ll be able to adjust things.”
He points to Daniel’s Husband – yet another Carbonell-winning script – as the play that was the easiest to write, perhaps because he considers it his most autobiographical.
“The central argument of ‘Daniel’s Husband’ is a fight that Stuart and I have been having in the 14 years we’ve been together,” McKeever says. “I’ve never believed in gay marriage. I thought it was antiquated, something to try to assimilate ourselves. There was nothing that Stuart and I had that would be changed by marriage, I felt. Yeah, ‘Daniel’s Husband’ pretty much wrote itself.”
It is also the play that could mean a quantum leap for McKeever’s career. The visibility of its success in New York has already meant increased attention for the rest of his library of scripts and an added commercial run in New York looms as a possibility.
But don’t worry: South Florida is unlikely to lose McKeever to the Big Apple anytime soon. “I was just up in New York, where I made a lot of new friends and they said, ‘Why aren’t you up here?’ If we could afford a second place up there, we’d do it. But I know JetBlue’s flight schedule, I know the seats, I’m good.
“There’s a warmth and a comfort down here and a shorthand that I speak, not only with Zoetic but with the other theater companies as well. And the directors in this region. I speak their language.”
By now, as McKeever conceives a play, he knows exactly which area theater it is best suited.
“I know that Zoetic will take the darker work, Stuart takes great pride in that,” he says. “I just knew that plays like ‘Stuff’ or ‘After’ was just too dark for Actors Playhouse’s audience base. They like the musicals. Dave (Arisco, its artistic director) agreed that ‘Finding Mona Lisa’ was a good fit, but for the longest time I just didn’t think it was going to happen.”
He has pegged Palm Beach Dramaworks as leaning towards more thoughtful plays with more conventional storytelling, FAU Theatre Lab as drawn to more offbeat fare, perhaps with a political component, and Island City Stage for his gay plays.
Plays like Mr. Parker, coming in June of next year. It concerns a May-December relationship and the changing face of contemporary dating.
“I’m 55 now, but it occurred to me the world has changed so much since I was single,” says McKeever. “I don’t know if I could be single anymore. I wouldn’t know how to do it. Everything’s different now. You don’t meet anyone anymore, you go on dating apps. Or sex apps. It’s bizarre.
Mr. Parker is “this 52-year-old man whose partner died seven years ago. He suddenly wakes up one day in a bed of a 28-year-old. That morning becomes an hour-and-a-half discourse between being 28 and being 52. And how the world has changed, from the eyes of a millennial compared to someone who was there before the world became what it became. It’s going to be a two-hander, just exploring things that are in my head.” (Translation: It is not written yet.)
In addition to being South Florida’s premier playwright, McKeever is hugely popular in Europe. He was introduced over there early in his career with a comedy called 37 Postcards that first opened at Coral Gables’ New Theatre before being exported to Germany. Why Germany?
“Because my sense of humor is so dark, which is perfect for Germany and Austria. Those two countries get me, and now it’s Poland and Russia, Sweden and Switzerland as well,” he says with a bemused laugh. “That production of ‘37 Postcards’ was this enormous hit that got extended month after month. And that led to (overseas productions of) ‘Suite Surrender,’ ‘Unreasonable Doubt’ and ‘Open Season,’ which just played in Poland. Isn’t that bizarre?”
Now that he is receiving more production across the country and the European royalties arrive regularly, McKeever could slow down. But don’t expect that to happen anytime soon. “Because I love doing it. I’m so lucky, I have a gig I love and I can keep doing it into my 80s or 90s,” he says. “I don’t have to go in 9 to 5. I work when I want to work. Now that I have a steady income from this, that’s not going to stop me from writing.
“The older I get, the more I have to say. The more I’ve learned, the darker my feelings are. And I’m comfortable putting them on paper,” he allows. “I’m a better writer now than I was back then. I look at the tricks that I played and the rhythms that I fell back on, because I didn’t know how to get out of them. And how I would skim over things that were a little too dark with witty banter.
“Now I’m not afraid to go there.”