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Theatre in Review: Gently Down the Stream (The Public Theater)

Gabriel Ebert, Harvey Fierstein. Photo: Joan Marcus

Gently Down the Stream begins with a moment that is a kind of historical snapshot; it won't be the last of the evening. It is 2001 and two gay men have connected by the then-novel means of a website called Gaydar. This incident -- which will certainly amuse the millennials in the audience -- sets the tone for the rest of the play, which is both intimate and, in its own way, epic. Martin Sherman, the playwright, has constructed a touching account of a romantic triangle that, at the same time, charts the fundamental changes that have reshaped the lives of gay men between World War II and today.

For starters, the couple on stage is cross-generational. Beau is a sixtyish American living in London, where he works as a pianist at a bar in Covent Garden. (One look at the gorgeous, book-lined interior designed by Derek McLane and you understand that Beau is a long-term ex-pat; you also want to move in, on the spot.) Rufus is a mergers-and-acquisitions lawyer in his late twenties who, clearly, likes older men, partly for erotic reasons and partly because they provide him with a link to a long-gone gay past that, he imagines, was filled with mystery and romance. To Rufus, one of Beau's most attractive features is his former career as accompanist for Mabel Mercer -- to the younger man, a talismanic figure in a never-ending film noir in which male couples continually change partners and dance. Beau, who is having none of this, evokes the experience of Mercer singing to an audience of closeted gays: "You were sinking into a different world and it was a forbidden world, an unspoken world, and yet it was being spoken, but in a code, although not exactly in code, because it was actually very straightforward, and you came away sad, but exhilarated by that sadness, because it was your life and you've just been sharing it, although you weren't actually sharing anything." Rufus, enraptured, asks, "Was it romantic?" Beau replies, "So it seemed. But it wasn't. Everyone was in pain, my dear, everyone was in pain. Someone like Mabel confirmed our misery and mythologized it, but misery it was. And, as a result, everyone was drunk."

With stories like these on tap, who can resist? Pretty much on his own initiative, Rufus moves in and, over the course of several years, conducts a series of video interviews with Beau. A New Orleans native, Beau was informed by his mobbed-up father that, for his own good, he'd better get out of town; he fled to Manhattan where he was quickly taken up by a glamorous literary crowd; even there, however, the sense of escape was highly conditional: "It's amazing the passage we all made around Truman and Tennessee and Gore, especially if you were Southern, like me, but they were all drowning in self-contempt, like almost everyone was in those days, those days that you so fancy..."

On the advice of his friend James Baldwin, Beau decamped to Paris, where he fell in love with George, a Canadian impresario whose theatre company toured Greece, performing the local tragedies; by then, it was the eighties and George was showing symptoms of a mysterious illness; back in New York, trying to find an effective treatment for his lover, Beau found himself caught in the chaos and tumult of a very changed city. New York, he says, was "dying and yet, here's the strange thing, coming alive at the same time. Alive with anger. And making themselves known. Speaking out. There were organizations, some of them loud, some of them conciliatory, but all serving a purpose. And in the midst of the chaos stood a modern Jeremiah or Ezekiel, a raging Old Testament prophet named Larry Kramer, spewing forth curses and truths that no one, not even his friends, wanted to hear, but which all, alas, came to pass." One of the peculiar pleasures of Gently Down the Stream involves hearing these words spoken in the Public Theater, where Kramer's stunning jeremiad, The Normal Heart, first came to life.

As Beau unfolds his saga, we see the deep, possibly unbridgeable divisions separating him from Rufus. They settle into an easy intimacy, Beau learning to tolerate his lover's endless questions, as well as his sometimes crippling depressions. (Rufus calls himself "lowercase bipolar.") But Beau hails from a generation that never believed a lasting relationship was possible, and Rufus wants marriage (or, at least, the domestic partnership then on offer in the UK) and maybe even kids. When Beau definitively turns down Rufus' proposal, a sea change takes place and soon they are joined by Harry, a performance artist, who is even younger than Rufus; Beau finds himself shifted from the role of partner to éminence grise.

It has been far, far too long since Harvey Fierstein has taken the stage, given his busy career turning out books for hit musicals, and Gently Down the Stream is a powerful reminder of what we've been missing -- the stare that always seems to contain a hidden accusation; the lips that, when pursed, reach out past the proscenium line; and that rusty rasp of a voice that can suddenly drop to a basso profondo, as if handing down unimpeachable truths from some private mountaintop. The role of Beau, who has seen it all and wouldn't mind forgetting much of it, fits him so well that one suspects Sherman wrote it with Fierstein in mind. Recalling Baldwin and other gay literary lions, he murmurs, to devastating effect, "Once upon a time, self-hatred made for great literature." Of course, he cracks wise with élan, noting in his best Joan Rivers manner that "these days, coming out is something like an unplanned bar mitzvah." Trying to explain to Rufus that he might get bored with an older man, he says, "You might suddenly fancy a single chin." But what really makes him a man of his time is his assertion that "there is no hope for two guys, ever" -- a harsh assessment that provides a powerful reminder of the distance between yesterday and today.

The notion that Rufus is deeply attracted to Beau is the play's riskiest strategy -- although such relationships certainly exist -- but Gabriel Ebert's performance goes a long way toward making it convincing. He also sees to it that Rufus evolves over the course of several years, starting out as a giddy, almost faunlike presence, slipping into black moods, and ultimately emerging as a mature man of affairs, anchored by family responsibilities. Given much less stage time, Christopher Sears is nonetheless striking as Harry, who, despite his tattoos and career as a performance artist, may be the most conventional figure on stage. In one of the play's most revelatory moments, he co-opts one of Beau's beloved musical standards -- that gay bar hardy perennial "The Man I Love" -- in a performance that is both heartfelt and rife with irony.

This is one of many moments that captures the sense of time's passage and the changes wrought by it; in another, Beau, in the unaccustomed position of presiding at a same-sex wedding, finally reveals the story of his man who got away -- which unfolded under a set of circumstances almost too ghastly to recall, but which exemplifies the casual acceptance of violence against gays that was acceptable not so very long ago. The sight of a gay man of one generation making a benediction on a loving couple half his age is inexpressibly moving.

Sean Mathias directs the proceedings with the steadiest of hands, making sure that Sherman's wit is felt, but always probing more deeply, highlighting the almost unbelievable progress the gay community has made over six decades. He has also obtained first-class work from his designers. McLane frames the action in a green velvet curtain that adds a welcome touch of old-school theatricality. Once again, Peter Kaczorowski demonstrates his mastery of lighting that is unobtrusive, yet remarkably beautiful. Michael Krass' costumes create sharply different looks for each character. The sound designers, Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen, blend such effects as street traffic and crying babies with a couple of delightful selections by Mercer.

The title, taken from the old nursery rhyme, is the punch line to an amusing story about one night in a Manhattan YMCA filled with gay men pursuing assignations. But the water imagery seems right for a play in which the advance -- and ebbing -- of different generations provide clues to a social evolution that, three or four decades ago, hardly seemed possible. Even if, like me, you have lived through many of the events described in Gently Down the Stream, chances are you may leave the theatre marveling, From where we started out, how did we ever end up here? -- David Barbour

(11 April 2017)

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