In this new play by the author of Bent and The Boy from Oz, Sherman reviews the advances made in the last 70 years for gay people through the 13 year relationship between two men who are of different generations. Co-starring Tony Award winner Gabriel Ebert as the younger man, Gently Down the Stream is a sensitive and involving romantic study of the changes that have occurred over seven decades.
The play begins in 2001 and follows the lives of two men in London for the next 13 years. Sixty-one-year old Beau, a cynical American cocktail pianist and long time British resident, has hooked up with Rufus, a 28-year-old British lawyer working in mergers and acquisitions. Rufus who likes older men has researched Beau’s career and wants to hear about his years as accompanist to night club singer Mabel Mercer. To Beau’s surprise, Rufus ends up moving in with him and becoming his partner in all but name.
However, both men bring a great deal of baggage with them. Beau’s experiences from the 1960’s to his meeting with Rufus in 2001 have taught him to expect that as a gay man he will always be an outsider and that love between men is not allowed to last. However, Rufus is from another generation (post-Stonewall) and believes that he has the same rights as everyone else. While Beau is a cynic and a pessimist always waiting for the other shoe to drop, Rufus is instead a manic-depressive who refuses to take his medicine.
When Beau turns down Rufus’ offer of civil partnership five years into their relationship, it frees Rufus to look around, while Beau’s reason is to not have him saddled in the future with an old man due to the 33 years between them. Eventually Rufus falls in love with another man, Harry, a performance artist who is seven years younger. They plan a life together complete with marriage and a child, things that have become available to gay men long after Beau stopped hoping for changes in society.
In between the scenes between the two men in Beau’s living room, Rufus records Beau’s reminiscences of his life and times. In this way, Sherman gives us a review of what things were like for gay men from 1940 up to the present, from the stories Beau had been told about the war years to his own personal and painful experiences from 1960 on. Beau’s memories include gay life in New Orleans, New York, San Francisco, Paris and London and cover police brutality and the rise of AIDS. Besides being flattered to be asked to tell his story, Beau also wants to pass on his experiences to the next generation who have had it easier. While the play becomes schematic alternating scenes between the two, Fierstein is so convincing in these authentic but surprising tales of the past that it never becomes simply a device.
Sherman’s mellow, sardonic humor suits Fierstein perfectly and Beau could have been a role that he had written for himself, an older brother to his Arnold in his own Torch Song Trilogy. This is the best role that he has had on stage in many years, and expressing many moods, he makes the most of it. Wrapping his gravelly bass voice around Sherman’s jibes and insults, he makes them seem to say more than appears on the surface.
Ebert’s Rufus is an equally colorful character, shifting from euphoria to depression and back again. As both an interviewer and a member of a different generation from Beau, he is always animated and effusive. Having appeared in Fierstein’s play Casa Valentina, Ebert has great, comfortable rapport with the actor-author. In the underwritten role of Harry who does not appear until two-thirds of the way through the play, Christopher Sears makes a strong impression as the tattooed performance artist who lives his life with no apologies. He is particularly effective in his one cabaret appearance singing Gershwin’s “The Man I Love” with a bravado and brashness.
Derek McLane’s setting for Beau’s living room with other rooms visible is one of those high ceiling, book-lined apartments that is to kill for. The sound design by Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen is particularly noticeable in the four exquisite recorded songs by the late Mabel Mercer about love and loss that occur between the scenes. Michael Krass’ costumes define the three men so completely that they almost do not have to tell us about themselves. Peter Kaczorowski’s subtle lighting gives Beau’s apartment a homey environment.
Sean Mathias’ unobtrusive direction allows the actors to delineate their characters with the least bit of fuss. With its twists and turns down the path of a 13-year relationship, Martin Sherman’s Gently Down the Stream is an engaging and involving dramedy which gives Harvey Fierstein a chance to do what he does best, while at the same covering the history of gay life since 1940 without ever becoming preachy or boring. The title, incidentally, has two meanings, both referring to the passage of time and the famous song that plays a notable role in the play.
Gently Down the Steam (extended through May 21, 2017)
The Public Theater
Martinson Hall, 425 Lafayette Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-967-7555 or visit http://www.publictheater.org
Running time: one hour and 40 minutes with no intermission