BWW Review: Harvey Fierstein Reluctantly Finds Romance in Martin Sherman's Compelling GENTLY DOWN THE STREAM
"I'm old enough to be your ancestor," the 61-year-old gentleman scoffs to his 28-year-old overnight guest who, after meeting on a dating site called Gaydar, suggests that something of permanence could come between them.
Martin Sherman's compelling romantic comedy/drama Gently Down the Stream begins in 2001, meaning that sexagenarian Beau has lived a good deal of his life with his true self hidden in The Shadows as part of a generation that would rise up against discrimination so that those as young as his new friend Rufus could grow up taking a greater degree of freedom for granted.
Harvey Fierstein makes a rare non-musical stage appearance in a play he hasn't authored, and gives an exceptionally warm, tender and dramatically textured performance as an American cocktail lounge pianist settled in London, adjusting to a relationship with a man who sees him as both a lover and as a bit of an historical artifact.
Gabriel Ebert has a playful charm and a casual sexiness as Rufus, a lawyer who admits to having admired Beau as an entertainer before hooking up with him, and spends the morning after digging for information about his years accompanying cabaret great Mabel Mercer.
Against what Beau believes to be his better judgement, Rufus moves in, and the play's more intimate moments involve the older man sharing monologues of recollections that his lover videotapes. Believing it's important for gay men of his generation to share their stories with the younger set, he talks about his exile from his childhood home of New Orleans when it was discovered he had been frequenting the French Quarter's gay clubs, his memories of Larry Kramer ("a raging Old Testament prophet") and the anger stirred by the country's indifference to the AIDS crisis. Eventually he opens up about the horror of the New Orleans UpStairs Lounge fire of 1973.
The title refers to Beau's description of an unlikely way gay men experienced a tad of freedom to be themselves during wartime.
As their relationship changes, performance artist Harry (appealingly cocky Christopher Sears) enters the picture. Aside from singing a full-out bare-chested rendition of "The Man I Love" during a club gig, Harry, who is younger than Rufus, is part of a generation of gay men who, unlike Beau, take to straight society's style of domesticity very easily.
Director Sean Mathias' sensitively played production is set in designer Derek McLane's depiction of Beau's comfortably stately flat, with towering bookshelves and framed vintage photos lending a sense of history.
Given the subject matter, the presence of Harvey Fierstein also adds a sense of history. Beau's timeline suggests he wasn't in America during the early 1980s, which may explain why he never mentions a downtown drag performer who made theatre history with his Tony-winning play TORCH SONG TRILOGY.