6 min

Age ain’t nothing but a number

Dave Deveau’s new play, Lowest Common Denominator, calculates the age gap

Shawn Macdonald, Dallas Sauer and Deborah Williams star in Dave Deveau’s new play, Lowest Common Denominator, about the challenges and delights of intergenerational romance and a mother’s perhaps understandable yet overly protective response. Credit: belle ancell

Surrounding the raft of recent anti-gay laws passed in Eastern Europe and Africa is a recurring refrain: the conceit that gay relationships somehow centre on pedophilia.

In Russia and Uganda, and to a lesser extent in Lithuania and Nigeria, new anti-gay laws are underpinned by the rhetoric that innocent, naive youth need protection from the sexual advances and coercion of older gay men.

Current child abuse laws aren’t enough to stop the scourge, lawmakers say. The specious argument trumpeted from pulpits and protesters alike is that gays can’t reproduce, so they must recruit. And they like ’em young.

“Won’t somebody think of the children?”

It’s the most powerful weapon in the homophobe’s arsenal: a malicious statement that paints an entire population with a broad and ugly brush. It’s also pure genius, because abuse does happen and that plays right into the haters’ hands. Even when presented with facts and figures that refute such insidious claims, an open-minded, otherwise rational parent might still feel uneasy.

They say age ain’t nothing but a number, but in the real world, those numbers add up. Most parents would feel protective if their young adult son or daughter was in an opposite-sex relationship with a serious age difference. Throw gay in there and you’re adding fuel to the fire.

In playwright Dave Deveau’s new play, Lowest Common Denominator, Deborah Williams plays Harmony, a somewhat bitter divorcée whose precocious 18-year-old son, Trevor (Dallas Sauer), takes up with Peter (Shawn Macdonald), a man 30 years his senior.

What unfolds is a sometimes funny, sometimes tragic investigation of the limits of parental love, the social stigma of intergenerational relationships, the obstacles that age can present, the path toward finding your own way in the world and the controversial notion of sexual agency in young adults.

Plus, there’s the whole gay thing.

“In the straight world, you don’t hear the word pedophile nearly as often as we hear it in reference to the gay community,” Deveau says. “When Calista Flockhart, 49, and Harrison Ford, 71, show up at the Oscars, it’s not a big deal. No one questions an older man and a younger woman together. Even an older woman and a younger man is less of a shocker than it used to be. But when it’s two men with an age difference, there’s this idea that it’s wrong, that there’s an inherent imbalance.”

For Deveau, every play should be a conversation with the audience, not a monologue.

“I was asked recently who is the hero in this play and who is the villain,” he says. “I can’t answer that. I truly believe that if a playwright goes into it with a villain and a hero in mind, they’re just fooling themselves. In Lowest Common Denominator, every character’s actions are motivated by what they think is right and come from an honest place.”

“I see Peter as someone who guides and nurtures Trevor,” says actor Shawn Macdonald, who plays the older love interest in the play, which premiered with Zee Zee Theatre on March 14 and runs until March 30.

“I think where a lot of people get confused is that there’s a difference between an older and a younger man together and the sexual archetype of the daddy and son,” he says. “One is a relationship between people, and the other is a role that’s assumed intentionally.”

Macdonald, who is 50, has some experience in this area: he’s 16 years younger than his partner, Terry.

“We met online seven years ago. First of all, I’d never had that kind of age difference before. And second, I’m not a daddy chaser,” he says and laughs.

While Macdonald didn’t have any concerns when they first started dating, he began to feel uneasy as things got more serious. “We had a lot in common and a lot to talk about, but it was my own preconceptions that got in the way,” he admits. “I was worried about what other people would think: my sister, my family. But Terry doesn’t necessarily act ‘older’ than me, and he’s a big, huge part of my social life. My friends love him and don’t even think about it anymore.”

Asked if the age difference has created any uncomfortable situations, Macdonald remembers a time Terry suffered a severe asthma attack and had to be taken to hospital. “The nurse looked at us and asked me if Terry was my father,” he remembers.

“Also, when we travel, I feel people make assumptions about us.” Macdonald says some people just don’t “get it” and he then feels the need to over-explain his relationship.

Dealing with the ignorance of others gets old very fast.

Kaylum is 37. Bruce is 68. They met online and have been together for just over three years. They asked that only their first names be used because, while friends and family have been supportive, they say they don’t want to be defined by their age difference.

“One day we were shopping at our usual place and I was lagging behind,” Kaylum says. “The lady behind the counter asked Bruce where his son was. He explained to her that I wasn’t his son, that I was his partner. Then I arrived. I don’t know if Bruce saw the look on her face when we left. I did. That was a very raised eyebrow.”

“I find that whole sugar daddy thing to be loathsome,” Bruce says. “Relationships, as far as I’m concerned, must be a union of equals.”

Which brings him to a minor concern. “I got to grow and experience my 30s, and I sometimes worry that I’m depriving him of that experience. It sounds snippy to say it, but sometimes, given my age, it’s a matter of ‘I know more than you do.’”

“That works both ways,” Kaylum counters. “Facebook,” he adds playfully, implying that Bruce might not be up to speed on matters of social media.

Kaylum is also quick to point out that he was the one who drove things at the beginning of their relationship. “I was the one calling and asking, ‘Do you want to hang out?’” he says.

“I think Bruce is worried about [unduly] influencing me, but the fact is, we disagree on a lot of things, and I have no problem saying, ‘No, no, I don’t think so.’”

Intergenerational relationships in the gay community are a serious topic deserving sober assessment, sure. But they can also make for some hilarious moments. Deveau himself says that Lowest Common Denominator is a comedy — or, at least, as close to a comedy as his Jessie Award–winning work gets.

In my own circle of friends, age differences are often the stuff of hilarious after-work get-togethers. One friend, who allowed me to share the following anecdotes but not his identity, is dating a man nearly 10 years his junior. My friend (we’ll call him Owen) is 30 — and he’ll be the first to tell you he doesn’t look it. His partner (let’s call him Paul) is 21. They met two years ago when Paul was in his second year at university.

“Do you have any idea how much a 21-year-old eats?” Owen will ask incredulously, listing off the nauseating quantity of late-night snacks Paul can consume without seemingly gaining an ounce.

There’s also the one about how they made a pact that Paul would come out to his mother before Owen turned 30. “I wanted us to at least be in the same decade for that one,” he deadpans.

But the best story by far — and the most telling — is about when Paul came out to his mother. He’d been “house sitting” at Owen’s all summer and drove out to meet her in Owen’s pricey car.

A condo downtown. A foreign car. She knew deep down that her son was gay, although he’d yet to tell her, but her main concern was that his very first boyfriend was some sketchy sugar daddy. It’s at this point that Owen always smiles his boyish smile and says, “You have no idea how happy she was to meet me and not the guy she had dreamed up in her head.”