|GENTLY DOWN THE STREAM|
There are no bunny-filled top hats or flying doves on stage, but Tony-nominated playwright Martin Sherman pulls off as many sleight of hands in 100 minutes as the most experienced magician is in his affecting new play, “Gently Down the Stream,” now at the Public Theater. However, we’re not talking a thriller-type work in the vein of “Sleuth” or “Deathtrap.” Instead, Sherman delivers a play that appears to be about one thing, but turns out to be about quite another.
The show’s underlying plot focuses on the one night stand turned longterm romance between Beau (Harvey Fierstein, making a truly welcome return to the stage), a 62-year-old American pianist living in a well-decorated London flat (stunningly designed by Derek McLane) and Rufus (a superb Gabriel Ebert) an irresistibly charming 28-year-old lawyer with a fondness for older men and a curiosity about the past.
It’s neither a typical nor overly believable romance, especially once we (and Beau) learn that Rufus isn’t merely “lower-case bipolar,” as he describes himself, but truly manic-depressive. And ultimately, it’s not a relationship that Sherman invests much dramatic care on; the pair’s scenes together are fairly perfunctory. So it’s not altogether surprising that after a number of years, Rufus leaves Beau for the even-younger Harry (a fine Christopher Sears), a tattooed performance artist, even while professing lifelong devotion to his former lover. (That part turns out to be true.)
The crux of the play is a lesson in the many decades of gay history, delivered primarily in the form of periodic monologues delivered with stunning power by Fierstein. (The premise for most of these speeches is that Rufus has decided to videotape Beau for posterity).
While born in New Orleans (Fierstein’s accent is accurately described as having a bit of Brooklyn in it), he is exiled from the Big Easy on his 21st birthday by his gangster father. Soon, Beau ends up in New York (accompanying the great singer Mabel Mercer and befriending James Baldwin), and then San Francisco, back in New Orleans (where, by pure luck, he survives the famed Uptown Lounge fire but loses his first true love), Paris, Brazil, Greece, and back in New York (where his second lover dies of AIDS). How he ends up in London is never explained.
Many of these stories about gay history related by Beau – though not all – are familiar to gay and straight people alike, and Sherman retells them with great feeling if not much originality. But the fiery Fierstein, under Sean Mathias’ direction, makes each word sound as if it’s being pronounced for the very first time, and you can’t help but be riveted by his recollections.
Unfortunately, like many magicians, Sherman doesn’t quite know when to get off the stage. Beau gives a beautiful speech at Harry and Rufus’ wedding in 2013, one which should bring the curtain down. Instead, Sherman adds on one more, all-too-cutesy scene that wraps everything up in a brightly-colored bow. Maybe he believes audiences need to go gently into the night. I would have preferred to vanish into thin air a few minutes earlier.
By Brian Scott Lipton
Visit the Site
425 Lafayette Street
New York, NY 10003