'Gently Down the Stream': Theater Review

Gently Down the Stream 2 - Publicity - H 2017
Joan Marcus
A decades-spanning gay history lesson that could have used more glue.

Harvey Fierstein and Gabriel Ebert play May-December lovers in Martin Sherman's tender reflection on the contemporary freedoms of gay men and the painful struggles of the past that made them possible.

In his 1979 breakthrough play, Bent, Martin Sherman explored the Nazi persecution of homosexuals during the Holocaust, one of the darkest chapters in LGBT history. The violent collision of love and hateful intolerance that characterized that drama figures more distantly — as painful memories resurfacing from the past — in Sherman's new work, Gently Down the Stream. The play aims to bestow on the gay men of today the benediction of the generations before them who suffered and fought, while reminding them that the social and political freedoms they might take for granted were in fact won with blood and tears.

It's an admirable intention, in a play rich in moments of pathos and humor — even if the historical context is inserted rather than integrated.

The central character is Beau, a Louisiana transplant in his early 60s living in London, who for many years was an accompanist to famed cabaret singer Mabel Mercer and now works as a cocktail-bar pianist. As the play explains and then illustrates in torchy recordings heard between scenes, Mercer was an influential 20th-century vocalist-storyteller, her repertoire stacked with haunted songs about lost love, many of them written by male composers secretly pining for other men. In her plush, rounded vowels and expressive phrasing, coded messages of forbidden love were articulated for those who knew how to listen.

Sherman is nothing if not ambitious in setting up Beau to perform a similar function in this play, evoking a vanished world in monologues of joy and sorrow that conjure landmarks over multiple decades in the formation of gay identity and the evolution of gay rights. And in Sean Mathias' handsomely upholstered premiere production for the Public Theater, the playwright has enlisted Harvey Fierstein, a beloved performer and veteran flag-bearer for LGBT representation, whose own breakthrough play, Torch Song Trilogy, came shortly after Sherman's in 1982.

But casting Fierstein as Beau, while bringing meaningful associations, is a mixed blessing. As an actor, Fierstein is a human bear hug, a larger-than-life persona with a roly-poly physique and a basso rasp of a voice, specializing in deadpan drollery with a splash of sticky sentiment. He doesn't so much slip inside the character here as swallow him whole. That makes it a challenge to forget the performer and invest in the love story of a fictional creation who finds unexpected happiness after a lifetime of hurt.

For anyone who follows New York theater, it's always wonderful to see Fierstein back on stage. But it's hard to shake the feeling that Gently Down the Stream might have been a more satisfying play without him.

Spanning 13 years, the action takes place almost entirely in Beau's London flat, a cozy, book-lined sanctuary designed with impeccable detail by Derek McLane and revealed with a flourish behind velvet butterfly theater curtains. The story opens in 2001 in the frisky afterglow of Beau's first sexual encounter with Rufus (Gabriel Ebert), a 28-year-old English mergers and acquisitions lawyer he met on Gaydar. "You're so young you make me feel like a priest," sighs Beau, with a mock horror that doesn't disguise his pleasure. But Rufus has a thing for older men and wants to be more than a casual pickup. So despite the emotionally wary Beau's demurrals, Rufus sticks around, moving in almost immediately.

From the start, Sherman underlines the generational divide between Beau, whose circumspect approach to relationships was bred out of decades of disappointment and discrimination; and Rufus, who broke away from his family with no trace of residual baggage and now sees happiness in a committed same-sex union as his natural right. The younger man rejects Beau's urging for him to see other men his own age, and is wounded when, five years into their relationship, Beau refuses to take his suggestion of a civil partnership seriously. Like many older-generation gay men, Beau has trouble shaking off the "outlaw" mentality: "We're supposed to be inventing new rules, not imitating all the old conventions."

There are interesting points being made here that will resonate with LGBT audiences across the age gulf, but Sherman's writing becomes pedantic as he shoehorns in chunks of historical perspective. Rufus' fixation with mid-20th-century history and his hunger for Beau's personal recollections provide a too-mechanical reason to keep putting the contemporary domestic drama on pause while Fierstein, often in a solo spotlight, relives the turbulent past of gays gone by — both the highs and the lows.

This covers Beau's rejection by his father, who called him a "faggot" and gave him an envelope of cash to leave town; the colorful tales he heard from an older friend about New York during World War II, when the Astor Bar was a notorious hangout for discreet gay gents to meet lonely servicemen; his return to Manhattan from Paris with a Canadian lover in 1980, in time to witness the walking graveyard of the AIDS crisis; and finally, the tragic tale of his first love, a free-spirited hippie in 1970s San Francisco.

That final reminiscence becomes shattering when it intersects with the 1973 arson attack at the UpStairs Lounge in New Orleans, where 32 people were killed. (The worst hate crime committed in an LGBT bar until the Orlando nightclub shooting in 2016, that incident was the subject of a recent musical, The View UpStairs, also playing off-Broadway.)

In addition to Mercer, Beau's recollections are sprinkled with famous names, from gay men of letters like James Baldwin, Gore Vidal, Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams ("Once upon a distant past, self-hatred made for great literature") to AIDS activist-playwright Larry Kramer and philanthropist Judy Peabody, both of whom have connections to the Public Theater. But those mentions invariably are too brief to be illuminating, adding to the sense that Sherman is ticking boxes for the edification of the post-equality LGBT generation and the nostalgia of those who came before.

The play is always engaging, and there's no doubting the sincerity of its intent. But it's too much of a structurally awkward, speechy patchwork to be dramaturgically convincing. And while the tender, big-hearted performance of Ebert (a Tony winner for Matilda) nicely complements Fierstein's expansive warmth, a plot point that builds conflict around bipolar Rufus' reluctance to take medication adds little.

The weaknesses grow more evident once Beau's defeatist outlook on his future with Rufus has become a self-fulfilling prophecy, sending the now 35-year-old lawyer into the arms of Harry (Christopher Sears, appealing), a tattooed young performance artist who turns out to be more matrimonially inclined. The ongoing closeness of the three men, even after Beau has returned to living alone, allows the playwright to address gay marriage and parenting in a protracted wrap-up that's touching even as it wades into mawkish sentimentality. But the modern-day relationships end up serving as a skeleton on which Sherman can hang inter-generational observations that he hasn't found a cohesive way to dramatize.

Venue: Public Theater, New York
Cast: Harvey Fierstein, Gabriel Ebert, Christopher Sears
Director: Sean Mathias
Playwright: Martin Sherman
Set designer: Derek McLane
Costume designer: Michael Krass
Lighting designer: Peter Kaczorowski
Sound designers: Rob Milburn, Michael Bodeen
Presented by the Public Theater