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Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay

Gently Down the Stream
New Conservatory Theatre Center
Review by Patrick Thomas

Also see Patrick's review of Broadway Holiday Spectacular

Daniel Redmond and Donald Currie
Photo by Lois Tema
Tennessee Williams coined the term "memory play" to describe The Glass Menagerie. Playwright Martin Sherman has created something like a memory play with his Gently Down the Stream, which opened Saturday night at the New Conservatory Theatre Center, but it's one I'd rather forget.

Sherman seems to have attempted an homage to Williams, both of in terms of the plays and the man himself. The lead character is an aging gay man named Beauregard (Donald Currie), an itinerant pianist from New Orleans who has traveled the world (New York! Paris! Mykonos!) and hobnobbed with artistic icons (Mabel Mercer! James Baldwin!) before finally settling down in London to live out his golden years. Enter Rufus (Daniel Redmond), a much younger man who is attracted to older men—especially one like Beau, whose past entrances Rufus, fascinated is he by the life Beau has led and the people he has met.

As the show begins, it's 2001, Google is a new thing, and so is "Gaydar," a dating app where Beau and Rufus meet. Beau is 62 and has a hard time imagining why a 28-year-old lawyer would be so fascinated by him. "You're so young you make me feel like a priest." But what Beau imagined would be a one-night stand turns into a relationship that seems to make both men happy—although Sherman has made the odd choice of omitting any scenes where we see infatuation develop into love. It goes from shoes and clothes scattered on the floor, the detritus of a first, passionate "assignation" (Beau's term, and the sort of word Tennessee Williams might also have chosen as a more polite descriptive for a hookup) to Rufus moving in. Happiness, however, is a somewhat elusive state for Rufus, who is bipolar and refuses to take medication for the condition because he loves the "buzz" of his manic states. Sadly, the one instance where we see Rufus in depression feels forced and unsatisfying.

At one point, Rufus begins interviewing Beau on camera (one that looks circa 1991 rather than 2001, however), capturing his memories of old lovers, his days accompanying Mabel Mercer (Currier's eyes twinkle convincingly at the memory of her singing), and the tragedies that befell them. "Things always end badly," Beau says, and though he's speaking of the hurdles that face a May-December relationship, it's an apt adage for Beau's tragic life. His father, Big Al (here another nod to Williams), disowned him, and his one trip back to New Orleans leads to the most painful of his many tragedies. But Rufus pushes Beau, curious about a past the older man would rather forget.

The problem with this production lies not in the performances, which are generally solid and engaging, but with the play itself. Although Sherman is an accomplished writer, best known for his play Bent, about the persecution of gay men in Nazi Germany, here he fails to make the stakes for Beau and Rufus clear and compelling. The play runs the course of 13 years, but we see very little growth in the two characters, or in Harry [Sal Mattos], who will ultimately take Rufus away from Beau. He doesn't help us understand what is drawing the action forward, or why we should care about what happens next.

Sherman's text also failed to keep me engaged, and my mind wandered in search of the answer to several questions. Why oh why is there no piano in the London flat of a professional pianist? (Though the set, by Kuo-Hao Lo, is otherwise effective in terms of it being filled with books and tchotchkes accumulated over a lifetime.) Why does Beau have not even a trace of a Southern accent? Both Redmond and Mattos adopt relatively effective British accents, but did Currier's character lose his along the way? And why does Rufus, who adores older men when he's 28, fall for someone younger when he reaches his mid-30s?

Currier gives us a lovely emotional moment at the end of Gently Down the Stream that seems to express the view that life is a bit like that song: a round that can continuously circle back on itself. But it's too little too late. The concept is a lovely one but, sadly, poorly expressed here.

Gently Down the Stream runs through January 9, 2021, at New Conservatory Theatre Center's Decker Theatre, 25 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco CA. Performances are Wednesdays-Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. Tickets are $25-$65, and can be purchased at or by calling 415-861-8972.