Gently Down the Stream

by Frank J. Avella

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Thursday April 6, 2017

Gabriel Ebert and Harvey Fierstein
Gabriel Ebert and Harvey Fierstein  

Martin Sherman is one of our greatest living dramatists. American theatres should be producing his work with great regularity. So why is he appreciated more in the U.K. than his native country?

"Bent," the seminal work that dealt with the treatment of homosexuals during the holocaust, solidified his place as a significant and daring playwright. That was almost 40 years ago. Since then he's written a slew of fascinating works ("Messiah," "When She Danced," "Rose"), the book for the Tony-winning musical, "The Boy from Oz," the screenplays for the indie gem, "Alive and Kicking" as well as the delightful Judi Dench starrer, "Mrs. Henderson Presents" (for which she was Oscar nominated) as well as memorable TV scripts ("Callas Forever," the remake adaptation of "The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone.")

And now he's back in New York, thanks to the Public Theater, with a new play, "Gently Down the Stream," that ambitiously explores 20th and 21st Century gay history, gay culture, the gay aesthetic (whatever that is) as well as what it means to persevere.

The curtain parts to reveal a fabulous set (by Derek McLane) -- a large, elaborate living area in a Shepherd's Bush flat in London. The room boasts a piano and is filled with books and trinkets and book and souvenirs and books and photographs and books... that have been lovingly amassed over the course of one man's lifetime; one man who has lived through an entire movement.

That man is Beauregard, a 62-year-old American cocktail pianist whose made London his permanent home (the latter info parallels the playwright). Beau is played by 62-year-old die-hard New Yorker, Harvey Fierstein.

The time is 2001, when Internet hookups were just becoming the rage. Beau has just awakened from a tryst with a sexy, gangly 28-year-old attorney, Rufus (an affecting Gabriel Ebert) who is quite smitten with Beau, much to his suspicion, skepticism and apprehension. "What am I doing here with a child? "You're so young you make me feel like a priest." These are just some of Beau's reactions towards Rufus's affections. (It turns out Rufus sought Beau out.)

Rufus insists that he fancies Beau and is truly fascinated with his stories of yesteryear. And he has many. Beguiled by tales of when gays had to hide in the shadows and were persecuted for their queerness, Rufus begins videotaping Beau in order to preserve/record what he sees as valuable history. He is especially taken with the fact that Beau had accompanied Mabel Mercer, the great cabaret chanteuse (whose techniques Frank Sinatra is said to have studied), in the 1960s.

It's here where the magic of Sherman's words washes over you as Beau explains that Mercer's captivating and enthralling gay audiences, in particular, had to do with the fact that she was singing songs, mostly written by men about men interpreted by a woman but as if it were in code for those men listening. "And you came away sad, but exhilarated by that sadness, because it was your life, and you've just been sharing it, although you weren't actually saying anything.'

As the play unfolds, Rufus moves in and the two make a life together but Beau is uber aware of the age difference, always wondering when things will end. And his pessimism (he would probably call it realism) turns into a self-fulfilling prophecy when Rufus returns home some seven years later with the news that he's met and fallen in love with someone else, devastating Beau in the process.

But that isn't where the relationship ends. Rufus's new beau, Harry (Christopher Sears, making quite a splash in just a few scenes), is a performance artist and soon becomes a part of Beau's life as well (no, not in that way, although it would have made for quite the twist).

The character of Beau, a native of New Orleans, has lived through all of the strife and pain and devastation gay men of his generation have endured. And he can now see that all the toil and activism actually affected change. But he has good reason to be wary.

The play touches on notions that great art came from the struggle ("Once upon a distant past self hatred made for good literature.") and that fighting for their lives during the AIDS crisis made the gay community stronger ("They were dying. Dying, and yet here's the strange thing, coming alive at the same time. Alive with anger. And making themselves known.")

It's in Beau's stories that the character is revealed, as well as the history of an oppressed and pilloried group of people who've fought for their rights and have seemingly come out ahead (for now at least, and only in certain areas of the world.)

Beau's beautifully written and performed monologues represent the heart of the play and the soul of Beau. Here he is able to speak about things he's long suppressed -- painful, real events in his life that denote the harsh and cruel world Beau lived in only yesterday.

I was particularly struck by Beau's reminiscence of his lover George, a crazy Canadian who was part of a troupe of actors who brought Greek tragedies to, well, Greece, every summer until AIDS decimated them.

Another searing moment has Beau describe surviving the fire at the UpStairs Lounge in 1973 in New Orleans, while the love of his life perished.

Sherman writes such poetic and penetrating words and Fierstein breathes them into vivid images, while the brilliant director Sean Mathias gives it all the color and light and space needed to become art.

This is a true departure for Fierstein, who is playing a character very foreign to his own self-penned incarnations as well as the campier roles he's usually cast in in other mediums (and, of course, "Hairspray.") But the casting works magic because the author of the groundbreaking "Torch Song Trilogy" brings his own history to the piece.

But that does not detract from his immersing himself into Beau. He does the work, taking us deep inside Beau's memories, his sensibilities, his regrets, his fears and his hopes. And Fierstein's iconic status actually adds to the great sense of queer history.

Halfway through the play, Beau regales Rufus with a tale told to him by an old flame named Sam about how gay life "blossomed during the war" (WW2) and how, on a particular night at the YMCA, post-sex, he erupted into the song, "Row, Row, Row Your Boat." Soon other soldiers, pre-, mid-, or post-coital began singing and it built to a release... an orgasm, metaphorically -- and possibly, literally!

That moment has stayed with me. It's haunted me. The ephemeral nature of that type of elation is something not often explored in current art. It also made me feel a kinship with, and an alienation to, my gay brethren. And a jealousy. All at the same time.

"Gently Down the Stream" ends in 2014. And the final moments are appropriate for that year. But I couldn't help but wonder where Beau and Rufus and Harry and that fourth character might be right now in 2017, when things look to be regressing, when all the ground that has been gained could easily be lost all over again.

"Gently Down the Stream" runs through May 21 at the Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street, NYC. For tickets or information, call 212-967-7555 or visit publictheater.org

Frank J. Avella is a film and theatre journalist and is thrilled to be writing for EDGE. He also contributes to Awards Daily and is the GALECA East Coast Rep. Frank is a recipient of a 2019 International Writers Retreat Residency at Arte Studio Ginestrelle (Assisi, Italy), a 2018 Bogliasco Foundation Fellowship, a 2016 Helene Wurlitzer Residency Grant and a 2015 NJ State Arts Council Fellowship Award. He is an award-winning screenwriter and playwright (CONSENT, LURED, SCREW THE COW, FIG JAM, VATICAN FALLS) and a proud member of the Dramatists Guild. https://filmfreeway.com/FrankAvella https://muckrack.com/fjaklute