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Gently Down the Stream

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - April 5, 2017

Harvey Fierstein and Gabriel Ebert
Photo by Joan Marcus

You already know the tune that gives Martin Sherman's new play at The Public Theater, Gently Down the Stream, its title. With any luck it conjures for you memories of youth, innocence, and happiness unsullied by the burdens of the world, and that's certainly part of the role it plays here. But that bouncy little ditty also suggests that a permanent, lasting joy—ecstasy, really—can be derived from a careful application of the same lessons we learned back then. That studying our past, who we were and what we did and why we did it, won't just explain the future, but will also create it, and imbue us with the courage to continue recreating ourselves as the passage of time deems necessary.

It's not a complex moral, nor is this is a complex play. But both are more than good enough to turn out a touching document of three lives at three very different thresholds, across the period of 2001 to 2014 when, one might think, few big new stories were being told. True, much of what Sherman touches on here concerns a subject that not everyone will have much knowledge of or interest in, that being gay history. But he, director Sean Mathias, and stars Harvey Fierstein and Gabriel Ebert ensure that, despite a few visible seams, it's universal and moving nonetheless.

What starts off as a one-night stand between Beau (Fierstein), a 61-year-old American man from New Orleans, and Rufus (Ebert), a 28-year-old British lawyer, in Beau's cozy London flat (Derek McLane designed the delightfully warm and cramped set), turns into a years-long relationship neither thought possible. Not because of the age difference, but because each perceives himself as damaged and unsuitable for new forays into love: Beau was stricken in his past for a reason he dares not divulge, and Rufus is manic-depressive (or, as he prefers to say, bipolar) and unwilling to take the medication to correct it. But their attraction, to say nothing of their fondness for cabaret singer Mabel Mercer (for whom Beau played once upon a time), gives them just enough to go on.

It's difficult to say much more without spoiling the direction in which they head, but it can be mentioned that their bond, despite stretching and changing drastically over 13 years, endures and strengthens, and remains both realistic and affecting in all its forms. Two other people, Harry (Christopher Sears), a performance artist about Rufus's age, and a baby girl named Evelyn, also play important roles in the saga. But throughout, Sherman demonstrates the extent—and limitations—of closeness and intimacy in such long-term partnerships, while also acknowledging that it's only through both individual and joint change that true growth happens. The growth we witness—and there's a lot of it—is touching without ever becoming maudlin, which is no small feat.

Harvey Fierstein and Gabriel Ebert with Christopher Sears
Photo by Joan Marcus

Sherman is less smooth at integrating the history into his tale that drives so much of what occurs. Beau was on the front lines for most major developments of the preceding five decades, and relates them in a series of spotlit monologues that, though well constructed, bellow "context" rather than whisper it. (This is not the fault of Peter Kaczorowski, whose lighting designs are always thoughtful and appropriate.) There is eventually a payoff, but it comes late, and is confusingly handled; it's difficult to know whether you're inside Beau's head, watching a video confessional, or seeing him live, and tougher still to know whether it ought to matter. The feeling is overly professorial in what's otherwise a very human play, and little is conveyed that couldn't be through regular dialogue.

Similarly, neither Sherman nor Mathias, who has directed with a strong, quiet sensitivity throughout, successfully justifies the comparison of the men's maladies, and there's a not-so-subtle "chill out" vibe to the discussions of Rufus's condition that diminish it in light of Beau's more varied and scarier life. Yes, we know that Rufus is only free to worry about his bipolarity rather than being killed in the street because of the larger social doors Beau opened, but it still seems an unnecessary addition to a play that's already fairly rich. Sherman needs much less force to drive home his points than he uses.

Fierstein and Ebert are wonderful, though, and share an appealing slow-burn chemistry that develops at just the right pace but works regardless of where their characters are in their lives. Ebert is good at charting Rufus's maturation, and even better at shading his behavior through his mental illness so we see how he functions (or not) at each point along the spectrum. Fierstein's accent (described in dialogue as "Southern mixed with Brooklyn") is inconsistent, and does not sit well within his ever-present gravelly timbre, but his performance is deft, intricate, and heartfelt, internalizing Beau's myriad defining experiences more ably than Sherman's writing typically does. Sears, in the smallest and weakest part, doesn't resist reaching into cliché to flesh out Harry, and he lacks the flamboyance or outrageousness that might make him truly come alive, but is generally fine.

Alas, poor Harry is always going to be a third wheel; what Beau and Rufus have together is not something everyone else can or will. But, he like all of us, can grow because of it, and come to better understand why it matters and why it always has. Gently Down the Stream does not depict a life that always rolls along merrily, but it does depict one in which no one is ever too broken to be denied the joy and the freedoms so many people have fought, died, and lived for. Rest assured, the tears you may find yourself crying upon its conclusion will not be tears of sadness.

Gently Down the Stream
Through May 21
Public Theater Martinson Theater, 425 Lafayette Street
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