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Theatre in Review: Steve (The New Group at Pershing Square Signature Center)

Malcolm Gets, Jerry Dixon, Mario Cantone, Matt McGrath. Photo Monique Carboni

No flies on our playwrights: Only a few months since marriage equality has become the law of the land, we have two new plays, opening within ten days of each other, about what happens when the marriage battle is won, and gays and lesbians get to deal with ordinary unhappiness -- boredom, jealousy, wayward lust, and the fear of getting old. If that sounds like a depressing prospect, it isn't, at least in the case of Steve, which explores such questions with considerable sparkle and hilarity.

Steven, Matt, and Carrie have been best friends since forever; once aspiring performers, they bonded while waiting tables at a Manhattan dive where they had to literally sing for their supper. Now, as middle age creeps in, Matt is in real estate and married to Brian. Carrie has just broken up with her latest partner and is getting a lot of attention about her blog, about living with cancer. Steven is married to Stephen, a corporate lawyer, and raises their son. All should be perfect: As Carrie notes to Stephen, "You're in the ad. The ad where the two of you are with The Kid by the Viking stove in your island kitchen and you're, like, barefoot."

As the play opens, it is Steven's birthday and all five have assembled in a restaurant; the birthday boy is in noticeably brittle mood, however, having just discovered that Stephen and Brian have for some time been carrying on a hot and heavy sexting relationship. The playwright, Mark Gerrard, enjoys giving us alternate versions of the same scenes, so we see Steven bare this secret in a scorched earth monologue about Stephen's "complete and total annihilation of what once was but will never be again our picture-perfect storybook fairy-tale existence." In reality, he simmers and offers bitter comments. When their rather fetching waiter is revealed to be Argentinian, and Stephen tries to bond with him over a certain Andrew Lloyd Webber show, Steven cracks, "You'll have to forgive Stephen, as he comes from a generation that fetishizes the lesser musicals of the early '80s." "Lesser?" says Stephen, objecting. "It's Andrew Lloyd Webber," hisses Steven, in a tone of total condemnation.

Fasten your seat belts, everybody, for there's turbulence ahead: Steven and Stephen are soon sleeping in separate rooms and trying to deal with their son, who is turning into the world's youngest kleptomaniac. Steven finds himself being chased by that flirty waiter -- an aspiring dancer named Esteban -- and starts giving in, further confusing the issue of the status of his marriage. Matt and Brian's exercise guru -- "Trainer Steve" -- moves in with them for an experimental three-way arrangement. ("He's not a prostitute," says Matt, on the defensive. "Is he paying rent?" demands Steven. "He's saving for law school," replies Matt, loftily.) Carrie goes into a decline and depends on the others for her care; even so, she occasionally has to vent her fury at the self-absorbed Steven, reminding him that she is, after all, dying. Steven can't even spare a minute from his problems to marvel at the fact that Jennifer Lawrence is mulling over taking an option on Carrie's blog.

The characters in Steve are showbiz-wise magpies of the sort that have always congregated in Manhattan's gay neighborhoods, and they never let their troubles get in the way of a good wisecrack. (Steve has the highest zinger-per-page count of any play in town right now.) Battle-hardened survivors of social revolutions and the worst of the AIDS years, they have a musical theatre reference for every occasion. Steven, marveling at Carrie's ability to come up with the mot juste from the libretto of Into the Woods, says, "You quote Sondheim like a man." Stephen, irritated at the sight of Matt flirting with Esteban in Spanish, grumbles, "This is like that terrible West Side Story a couple of years ago." When news gets around that Jennifer Lawrence is out and Amy Adams is in as the probable star of Carrie's film, Steven says, "I know. We've all been trying to feign enthusiasm." (Not for nothing does the cast assemble on stage fifteen minutes before curtain time to take part in a group sing of Broadway show tunes.) Steven fondly recalls how, in their singing waiter days, he, Matt, and Carrie used to perform a trio version of "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going," an act devised, he says, "to perplex the tourists." Keep an ear cocked as wisecracks fly by about Bess Myerson, Lindsay Lohan, Elena Roger, and Kristin Chenoweth. Recalling a late friend, Steven says, "He was like the oldest person we knew. By a lot." Matt adds, in wonderment, "Do you know that he saw Barbra in I Can Get It For You Wholesale?"

The best thing about Steve is Gerrard's perspective; his characters are frequently foolish, but he understands nobody ever trained them for normal life -- the skill set that one picks up at Broadway auditions and Manhattan's gay bars doesn't necessarily provide ideal intimacy training -- and he is justly indulgent of their follies. He also has a deft way of drawing autumnal intimations of mortality that put their problems into sharp relief. And his observations couldn't be more up-to-the-minute, especially in his use of digital devices to drive the plot. In one sharply amusing sequence, Steven, pouring out his troubles to Carrie, keeps answering a series of texts from Stephen about household matters, concluding each with the signoff "Go fuck yourself." Malcolm Gets, as Stephen, pulls off a mini tour de force in a solo scene on his smartphone, during which he juggles calls from his mother and mother-in-law while frantically texting Steven, who has gone missing; sending orders, via text, to his son and Carrie, in the next room; and fielding a series of salacious texts from Brian. Rarely have the lines of communication been so tangled.

The entire cast performs expertly under the crack direction of Cynthia Nixon, who once again dazzles with the same mastery of comic timing that she demonstrated last season with Rasheeda Speaking, also at the New Group. Matt McGrath, having only a couple of months ago walked off with The Legend of Georgia McBride at MCC, once again makes every line count as Steven, whether snarkily noting that he has no time for the gym, what with his son and "my classes in optical art," or frantically battering Carrie with a series of probing questions about his often contradictory life choices. Ashlie Atkinson renders Carrie's plight with exactitude and not a trace of sentimentality, whether briskly reminding Steven that he is 47, not 43, or wondering if it was Glynis Johns or Jean Simmons whom they all got drunk with one night. (It was neither.) Mario Cantone, as Matt, is especially amusing when, having borne the brunt of Steven's scorn over extramarital activities, suddenly realizes that his friend is no angel, either; the simple act of putting down a coffee cup with finality calls up an enormous laugh. Jerry Dixon's Brian is totally charming in his duplicity. Francisco Pryor Garat makes an appealing debut as the airheaded Esteban, who shows up everywhere with a new quote on the meaning of life from Twyla Tharp, by way of seducing Steven.

The play unfolds in a number of locations, so the set designer, Allen Moyer, relies on a few pieces of furniture against an abstract, Mondrian-patterned backdrop, which disappears at the end to reveal a Fire Island landscape. The set also provides room for Olivia Sebesky's projections of text messages and English surtitles. Tom Broecker's costumes are sharply observant of each character's profession and/or station in life. Eric Southern's lighting and David Van Tieghem's sound design get the job done with a minimum of fuss.

Gerrard sends his characters out to Fire Island for a finale that is a touching valedictory, a reunion for long-lost friends, and, quite possibly, the beginning of a fragile peace for Steven and Stephen. Left alone, for once they are at a loss for words. And for once that might be a very good thing. -- David Barbour

(19 November 2015)

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