'Steve': Theater Review

Steve Production Still - H 2015
Monique Carboni

Steve Production Still - H 2015

Gays of future past.

Cynthia Nixon directs Mark Gerrard's comedy-drama about gay men in the throes of domesticity, with Matt McGrath, Malcolm Getts and Mario Cantone.

Where does the conflict come from in the contemporary gay play, now that the palpable threat of AIDS, the blight of institutionalized homophobia and the stigma of being social outsiders have receded to a significant degree? That seems destined to become a recurring question as post-equality dramatists struggle to steer what has often been referred to as the dreaded "my life so far" play away from self-indulgent navel-gazing. Newcomer Mark Gerrard's almost quaintly retrograde answer, in his amusing but inconsequential Steve, is to introduce a lone female character — let's call her Chunky Cancer Lesbian — and kill her off to fuel the guys' cathartic release.

That's not really a spoiler, since even in the play's musical preshow, as the cast gathers around a piano singing show tunes, Ashlie Atkinson, who appears as CCL (her actual name is Carrie), wears an unmistakable post-chemotherapy headscarf. By making her a lesbian, and giving her a relationship (albeit one that's kaput when we meet her), the playwright perhaps hopes to avoid charges of perpetuating the stereotype of the sexless martyr who is invariably the token woman at her gay BFF's birthday dinner.

The saving grace, to some extent, is that Gerrard and his likeable ensemble, under Cynthia Nixon's direction, do succeed in etching the indelible bonds that tie Carrie to the two middle-aged gay male couples whose domestic issues are the play's real subject. That's no small feat given that Steve substitutes dialogue for drama and parts for actual characters, coasting by on the writer's facility for humorous, often bitchy banter and clever pop-cultural references, predominantly from Broadway musicals. If "Name That Show" is your idea of a fun party game, you'll find much cause for merriment.

Read more 'Dada Woof Papa Hot': Theater Review

The play's emotional center is acerbic, self-described "failed chorus boy" Steven (Matt McGrath). He's partnered with mild-mannered lawyer Stephen (Malcolm Getts) and settled into the role of stay-at-home dad to their young son, a handful who steals things and screams in his sleep. Steven and Carrie were singing waiters together with their other best friend, actor-turned-real estate broker Matt (Mario Cantone), at an establishment that paired questionable cuisine with exuberant musical numbers. Matt is in a long-term relationship with Brian (Jerry Dixon, Cantone's real-life husband), the frontiers of which have begun expanding with the arrival of their hunky young trainer, the unseen Steve.

In case the ubiquity of that name in gay circles isn't clear, there's also a flirty Argentine waiter/dancer named Esteban (Francisco Pryor Garat), who's embarrassed by Evita, and whose attentions bring Steven comfort in his time of need. The cause of Steven's unrest is the discovery that Stephen may be cheating on him, based on iPhone evidence of his epic sexting duels with Brian.

Gerrard's model would appear to be the work of Terrence McNally, who has examined the evolution of the gay male identity, particularly in relation to AIDS, in such plays as Love! Valour! Compassion!, Some Men and Mothers and Sons.

Read more 'Significant Other': Theater Review

There's a brief mention in Steve of an ex-lover of Matt's whom we assume died of AIDS, but it's Carrie who fills the requirement here of sorrow as a conduit for introspection. Her worsening condition prompts Steven to contemplate — albeit without surrendering his unapologetic self-absorption — the hole that's about to open up in his life when his closest confidante shuffles off. "You quote Sondheim like a man," he tells her with a note of melancholy that suggests she's his true soul mate. Atkinson and the very funny McGrath (who gets most of the best lines) have terrific rapport in their scenes together, as does the entire cast, but the writing is too glib to yield much poignancy.

Nixon stages the piece serviceably on minimal sets, backed by a multisectional wall used to project translations from Spanish and, more notably, text messages, as in an overextended scene in which Getts' Stephen juggles a handful of conversations at once. The infiltration of technology into personal communications is something to which everyone can relate, but it rarely dramatizes effectively — not even when Gerrard spices it up with raunchy sex talk. The musical interludes are cute, including "So Long, Farewell" from The Sound of Music as a group curtain call. Likewise the theater-queen in-jokes — a delicious Kristin Chenoweth dig prompted guffaws. But in terms of substance, it's thin. 

Steve has quite a bit of overlap with Peter Parnell's Dada Woof Papa Hot, another play about contemporary gay relationships that premiered this month, which focuses more on parenting. Both works attempt to scratch beneath the surface of what Steven sarcastically calls "our picture-perfect storybook fairy-tale existence." Although Parnell's writing is more elegantly constructed and digs a smidge deeper into its themes, both plays are ultimately cramped by their insularity.

Read more 'Fun Home': Theater Review

It's interesting that in some of the most affecting gay-themed contemporary plays of recent years — Geoffrey NaufftsNext Fall, Joshua Harmon's Significant Other, among them — the march toward equality is happening in the distant background, training the gaze more squarely on the individual than the demographic. In Samuel D. Hunter's The Whale, for instance, the main character's homosexuality is almost incidental, as it is for the brothers in Stephen Karam's Sons of the Prophet. And in Fun Home, which is a musical but has the dramatic texture of a play, the present-day lesbian main character serves as a lens to understand the sexuality of both her closeted gay father and her younger self in a less evolved time.

By contrast, these newer, more insistently "now" entries suggest that plays about the status quo of the modern gay metropolitan couple are still a few steps away from thematic maturity. Perhaps that's unavoidable as gay men adjust to social relocation from the margins to the more conventional midstream.

Gerrard and Parnell ask all the standard existential questions of the 21st century domesticated gay man's midlife crisis: Am I still desirable? Can I be content with being a stand-in wife and mother? Am I capable of monogamy when so much of my cultural formation was about fighting for sexual freedoms? Is my partner faithful? Could I f— that waiter? Those questions now seem like updated, same-sex variations on the problems faced in heterosexual marriage comedies of the 1960s and '70s, in which liberated women wondered about having it all while men wrestled with their feelings concerning commitment and fidelity. That means that while the plays chart relatively new territory, often in warmly relatable terms, they also have a distinct odor of mothballs.

Venue: Pershing Square Signature Center, New York
Cast: Ashlie Atkinson, Mario Cantone, Jerry Dixon, Francisco Pryor Garat, Malcolm Getts, Matt McGrath

Director: Cynthia Nixon
Playwright: Mark Gerrard
Set designer: Allen Moyer
Costume designer: Tom Broecker
Lighting designer: Eric Southern
Sound designer: David Van Tieghem
Projection designer: Olivia Sebesky
Presented by the New Group