Beauregard/Beau (Harvey Fierstein) is a 62 year-old, New Orleans born saloon pianist living in a London flat that indicates he’s made money in his time. An honest, sensitive, gay man, he suffered tragic losses in the U.S. during the height of violence against homosexuals and burgeoning AIDs, fled to Paris, and finally nested where he is.
Our hero is comfortably stuck in the past. Having spent many years as accompanist for Mabel Mercer (whose recordings aptly punctuate the piece), taste runs to American Songbook and classical music. His well appointed, two-story living room is floor to ceiling books (with no apparent ladder access – the single omission of a terrific looking set by Derek McLane). Though the Internet is a foreign country, while curiously checking out a hook-up site (his nom de plume is Autumn Leaf), Beau has succumbed to being pursued by 28 year-old Rufus (Gabriel Ebert), who enters in his shorts.
Gabriel Ebert and Harvey Fierstein
Assuming Rufus is a one night stand, Beau is surprised to find a thoughtful, affectionate person besotted with the past and suspiciously enamored of him. “Look at you. You’re so young! I feel like a priest!” The stranger saw Beau perform at a local club, asked around and Googled him. Questions about Mercer (answered in palpable fits and starts) and the older man’s friendship with James Baldwin elicit increasingly open stories about Beau’s personal history – at first in passing, then formally videotaped by Rufus. “You’re turning me into Grey Gardens!”
Gabriel Ebert and Harvey Fierstein
The young man seems to romanticize history. “Those days that you so fancy, everyone was miserable and drunk…drowning in self contempt,” Beau protests underestimating his lover. A relationship ensues. Rufus moves in. Except for periods when his “lowercase bipolar” swings make things difficult, the couple is happy. Five years pass. Rufus proposes a Civil Ceremony. (There was no gay marriage.) “The British are the only people in the world who think partnerships can be civil!” Beau quips. Age difference (at the least) keeps him from trusting commitment.
Things necessarily shift. A tattooed performance artist named Harry (Christopher Sears) enters the picture. (Wait till you see what he later does with a Mercer classic.) With minimum fireworks, love morphs and endures in ways both warm and practical. No, it’s not a sexual triangle. You’ll end up liking all three men.
Gabriel Ebert and Christopher Sears
Playwright Martin Sherman has beautifully written the – necessarily compressed – evolution of a relationship over the course of 13 years. Detailed personal histories sound as utterly authentic as documented politics, so-called social norms, and Harvey Fierstein’s “Southern mixed with Brooklyn” accent. The smart piece will elicit laughter and a few possible tears. If anyone’s a romantic here, it’s Sherman. What a pleasure and relief it is! (A final scene feels like the epilogue. I don’t know why this bothers me, but it does.)
Director Sean Mathias is immensely deft. Painful, intimate recollections and reflex sarcasm are given their due. Timing is pitch-perfect. Emotional weather changes are not telegraphed. The use of in-one curtain speeches (storytelling) works well. Fierstein’s brief moment at the piano contributes. Well chosen Mercer tunes color to best advantage. (Superb sound design by Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen)
The multifaceted Harvey Fierstein has never been better. It’s as if Beau was conceived to showcase the cynicism, wit and vulnerable heart with which we associate the actor’s past roles while painting a rich character around touchstones. This one’s no wilting lily. From the expression on his face when asked how he stays fit to wrenching, steeled description of tragedy to visceral, if fearful gratitude, he’s simply marvelous.
Gabriel Ebert makes Rufus sympathetic and touchy-feely affectionate, yet doesn’t appear cloying. The way the actor casually drapes his long body on furniture keeps sex in the air without discussion. His character’s breakdown is disturbing, but not overplayed.
Christopher Sears (Harry) offers a brazen performance within the performance and is otherwise comfortably naturalistic.
Peter Kaczorowski’s Lighting Design adds particular nuance to mood changes and focus.
Photos by Joan Marcus
Opening: Gabriel Ebert and Harvey Fierstein
Gently Down the Stream by Martin Sherman
Directed by Sean Mathias
The Public Theater
425 Lafayette Street
Through May 21, 2017
STUPID FU**KING BIRD is billed as being “sort of” adapted from Chekhov’s The Seagull. “Sort of” is right. If unfamiliar with the original, there’s a synopsis in the program. You can skip it, but there’s amusement in seeing how, in playwright Aaron Posner’s inventive, updated version, the inmates take over the asylum. Don’t take that literally. Though the histrionic Conrad Akardina is, from the start, on the brink of cracking, and who knows into what fresh hell his actress girlfriend Nina finally travels, these are ostensibly regular folks. Well, not regular – they’re artists.
“The play will begin when someone says “Stupid Fucking bird!” declares Conrad (Christopher Sears) who ostensibly authored what we’re about to see. Several audience members respond. (We’re regularly questioned and addressed.) His cast comes through the single door in a stage-long wall that says STUPID FU**KING BIRD. Everyone wears casual contemporary clothing. There are folding chairs.
We’re gathered to see the premiere of a site specific performance event called “Here We Are,” which Conrad takes VERY seriously. Beautiful Nina (Marianna McClellan), for whom he bears tortured love, will act. The young woman says she loves Conrad but there’s no deep attraction.
In attendance are: Mash (Joey Parsons), a ukulele toting nihilist besotted with Conrad; sweet Charlie Brownish Dev (Joe Paulik), Conrad’s best friend, who’s “ridiculously” in love with Mash; the playwright’s imperious actress mother, Emma (Bianca Amato); her famous partner, the writer Doyle Trigorin (Erik Lochtefeld); and her frustrated doctor-brother, Eugene Sorn (Dan Daily). It’s a fevered caucus race that never arrives, rather like Alice in Wonderland.
Marianna McClennan and Christopher Sears
The event=monologue is kind of Dadaist. “This is real,” Nina intones holding up a paper that says REAL. Then, “This is true,” holding up one that says TRUE. (There’s more.) Emma sarcastically heckles, insisting the play is an attack on her (as, she feels, is everything). Conrad stops the show and runs off wounded. Mash is upset, Dev and Eugene rather liked the piece, Emma is incredulous at her son’s oversensitivity, Doyle applies The 100 Years Test: Will anyone care in 100 years?
Nina has had a mad crush on Doyle (through his stories) since she was 12. To say sparks fly between the middle aged, sensitive-chick magnet and this hyper romantic, unblushingly forward young woman, would be minimizing everything that follows. (The actors emanate heat.)
Joey Parsons and Joe Paulik
Muddled, Conrad thinks a primal gesture will appeal to Nina and shoots a seagull she admired, laying it bloodily at her feet. It doesn’t work. You probably remember the young man then raises the gun to himself. “The only thing worse than trying to kill yourself and failing, is having to talk to your mom about it.”
There’s a terrific, lucid rant about the need for new play writing forms, a tirade describing the deplorable state of the world which concludes: all we really care about is having someone to snuggle up to at night, and one about the difference between the act of creating and fame – including the best use of breasts in a metaphor I’ve ever heard – that might constructively be discussed in philosophy 101.
In one left field parenthesis, each character has sex with him/herself and a chair. Thespians wrestle to the ground and chase one another around the theater for possession of a microphone to proclaim what they want. Conrad sincerely asks the audience for advice – answers are inadvertently priceless. Eugene confesses his fatalistic yearning to an empty kitchen. Nina and Emma strip to the waist. (Spoiler alert: one gets fervently laid.) Mash sings fraught, Nellie McKay-like uke songs. Almost everyone lets go with screaming arguments, solitary tantrums, and/or abject pleading.
Marianna McClennan and Erik Lochtefeld
Then…Mash and Dev evolve unexpectedly. Nina chases her dream coming up lost and possibly mad. Emma attacks Doyle with an eloquent, passionate, vicious speech on which she risks everything. Conrad has a play produced – this one! And, well, you probably know what happens to him. The playwright even tells us before we go.
STUPID FU**KING BIRD straddles genres like a hotheaded bull rider. It takes a little time to kick in, time during which you may wonder to what self indulgent, intractable turmoil you’ve bought tickets. At some insidious point, however, there’s a gotcha! moment and you start having a very good time. It could be edited, but take the ride. Much of this sprawling brouhaha is smart, poignant, or astringently funny. Playwright Aaron Posner’s got his mojo on.
Christopher Sears and Bianca Amato
Direction by Davis McCallum is inspired.
As Conrad, Christopher Sears’s manic energy is unremitting. Pain is visceral. He inhabits the role. Marianna McClellan (Nina) exudes sensuality and innocence. She’s catnip. Bianca Amato (Emma) is a Lucretia Borgia character. The sharpness of her speeches could draw blood. Erik Lochtefeld (Doyle) is completely believable in his habitual acceptance of adulation. What passes between him and Nina is palpable.
Sandra Goldmark’s Scenic Design morphs from graphic invective to a platformed kitchen, never losing sight of the theater’s skeleton and all it’s what’s-real implications.
Dan Daily, Joey Parsons, Christopher Sears, Bianca Amato, Erik Lochtefeld, and Marianna McClellan
Photos by Russ Roland
Opening: The Company
STUPID FU**KING BIRD “sort of” adapted from Chekhov’s The Seagull
By Aaron Posner
Directed by Davis McCallum
The Pearl Theatre Company
555 West 42nd Street
Through May 8, 2016