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A CurtainUp Review
Gently Down the Stream
By Elyse Sommer
True to its title, a gentle story of a May-December love affair. The lovers — 61-year-old New Orleans born expat Beau (Harvey Fierstein) and 28-year-old British lawyer Rufus (Gabriel Ebert) — didn't meet row-row-rowing gently down a stream but navigating.the internet in its fledgling days of online dating. Their meeting under cyber aliases leads to an assignation in Beau's elegant London flat.
Beau, who's had too many love affairs end badly, resists anything long-term, especially in view of the age difference. The gentle but irresistibly lovable Rufus insists that the age thing doesn't matter and that they can be happy.
I don't want to give too much away, but both are right. . .and wrong. The love boat we see Beau and Rufus row-row-rowing along does eventually go in a different direction, wth bittersweet twists and turns that Beau couldn't have imagined when he was navigating the not so gentle waters of gay life.
It's the different expectations of what's possible that have shaped men of Beau's generation, that also shapes the narrative structure. It's what enabled Mr. Sherman to wrap Beau and Rufus's story around a meditation on three quarters of a century of gay American history, preceding the 2001 to 2014 years during which the Beau-Rufus story plays out. As firmly yet sensitively directed by Sean Mathias, this works quite well — whether viewed as story within a history lesson, or a history lesson within a love story.
Naturally, it's a plus to have Harvey Fierstein on board, actively engaged in the Beau-Rufus story between 2001 and 2014, and also as our fourth wall breaking monologist. Fierstein has himself been part of that gay history and Sherman's play at times feels like a sequel to Fierstein's Torch Song Trilogy, which is being revived this Fall at Second Stage. Despite being saddled with a not especially authentic New Orleans accent his easy to relate to persona wins the day. A bit schmaltzy he may be, and so is the story, but it's also sweet and touching.
Though Fierstein is clearly the centerpiece and ticket seller here, Gabriel Ebert's contribution to the play's most affecting moments is not to be discounted. His Rufus is more than just a somewhat quirky charmer but brings his own complexities to the relationship; in fact, it's Rufus who ultimately undergoes the most changes in terms of tackling the how to be happy question.
Though Harry, the play's third character has the least stage time, his role is not trivial, and is well played by Christopher Sears.
The production values warrant an across the board thumbs up though I do have a quibble about that elegant set. Those sky high book shelves certainly contribute to the classy decor that Beau's apparently permanent gig as a concert pianist at Covent Garden makes affordable. However, those book filled shelves don't really do much to define Beau's interests. There's nothing to indicate that Beau is much of a reader. The closest his dialogue comes to any bookish interests is when he talks about James Baldwin. Even if he were an avid enough reader to acquire all those books, how in the world would he put away or take down the ones close to the top shelves when the usually meticulous to detail Derek McLane has failed to include a ladder in his set.
The play is scheduled run having been extended even before its official opening is undoubtedly due to Harvey Fierstein's large fan base and the Public's reputation as a go-to destination for serious theater goers. What remains to be seen is whether this will be a case of preaching to the chorus of older gay men (and women), or also reach the younger gay theater goers who may not be all that familiar with the historic events that spearheaded their less restricted life styles. Here's hoping Gently Down the Stream will row its way into the hearts of men and women of all ages and sexual orientation.
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Gently Down the Stream by Martin Sherman
Directed by Sean Mathias
Public Theater, Martinson Hall
Cast: Gabriel Ebert (Rufus),Harvey Fierstein (Beau) and Christopher Sears (Harry)
Scenic design by Derek McLane
Costume design by Michael Krass
Lighting design by Peter Kaczorowski
Sound design by Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen
Hair and Makeup: Cookie Jordan
Stage Manager: Scott TaylorHollison
Running Time: 100 minutes, no intermission
Public Theater, Martinson Hall 420 Lafayette Street
From 3/14/17; opening 4/05/17; closing 5/21/17
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 3/31/17 press preview
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