Gently Down the Stream
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Theater review by Adam Feldman
In the first scene of Martin Sherman’s Gently Down the Stream, 61-year-old cocktail pianist Beau (Harvey Fierstein) and 28-year-old lawyer Rufus (Gabriel Ebert) act out the fantasy of many an older gay man. It’s not sex—they’ve already had that, having met on an online cruising site in London—but something perhaps even better: Rufus wants Beau to educate him at length about gay history. “What was Mabel Mercer like?” asks Rufus, and the excitable young man’s curiosity extends beyond mid-20th-century New York cabaret singers. Over the next 13 years of their evolving relationship, Rufus films Beau as he recounts his trials in the pre-equality era (a traumatic banishment from New Orleans, the devastation of AIDS) and moments of joy that poked into his life like rays of sun through regathering clouds.
Beau’s memory monologues interrupt the action at regular intervals, or perhaps it might be more accurate to say that the action interrupts the monologues. The 78-year-old Sherman (Bent) does not condescend to the play’s younger characters, the bipolar Rufus and a brash performance artist, Harry (Christopher Sears), whose rendition of “The Man I Love” is both silly and oddly magnetic. But Gently Down the Stream is more interested in telling Beau’s stories, which provide background for his wounded, wary resistance to options (marriage, children) that his juniors take for granted.
Since Beau is played by the marvelous Fierstein, who embellishes the rumbling squeak of his voice with an amusing Louisiana accent, the time we spend in his history is engaging—at least until Sherman places him, Forrest Gump–like, at the scene of a real-life 1970s tragedy. Will the younger audiences to whom this cultural-preservationist work seems tacitly oriented—much of it will be familiar to older ones—find it interesting? I’d like to imagine so. But the play, like Beau, is essentially passive. It doesn’t sink or swim; it bobs in currents of the past.
Public Theater (Off Broadway). By Martin Sherman. Directed by Sean Mathias. With Harvey Fierstein, Gabriel Ebert, Christopher Sears. Running time: 1hr 35mins. No intermission.