Gently Down the Stream – Evolution of A May/December Romance
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