In my case, I can back up the whining with evidence gathered over two-plus decades of teaching. Many of my students (gay and straight) don’t know what or where Stonewall is; as far as they’re concerned, Judy Garland disappeared after The Wizard of Oz; and (till Feud, at least) not only could they not tell you whatever happened to Baby Jane—in a line-up, they couldn’t distinguish her from Baby June.
How much emphasis we should put on the early, often ugly history of what once was called the Gay Liberation Movement is a big, important topic about which culture critics disagree. Luckily for me, the nuances are beyond the scope of this review—but I introduce it because it’s a key to Martin Sherman’s lovely, in some ways rather sweetly old fashioned, Gently Down the Stream.
Sherman’s play is elegantly structured on two parallel planes. On first: in a yummy Shepherd’s Bush apartment packed with books and memories, Beau (Harvey Fierstein, about whom more later), a 63-year-old former nightclub pianist and New Orleans native, begins an unlikely affair with Rufus, a quirky but ardent British man 35 years his junior. (Gabriel Ebert is superb in the role).
This side of Gently Down the Stream feels almost like a sentimental drawing room comedy from another era—or it would if Claudette Colbert or Katharine Cornell played the Fierstein role. To Sherman’s credit, though, he takes on unusual relationships (there’s an additional character named Harry, who further complicates things) and portrays them with charm and compassion.
The secondary narrative is rooted in the past, and given voice by Beau/Fierstein often through monologues directly addressed to the audience. These consists of summoning legendary stories and icons, and the process begins as Beau recalls his years playing piano for the great Mabel Mercer in various New York bars. But it’s not limited to old theater war stories—Beau also provides heart-wrenching details about the early days of the AIDS epidemic, and more. (It’s a measure of Sherman’s considerable skill that the historical narrative and the very different romantic comedy merge so smoothly in the script.)As nearly everyone knows, Fierstein is a brilliant solo performer—and is himself a living icon of gay history. He is as spellbinding here as ever, his artistry if anything more textured with the passage of time. In the monologue sections of Gently Down the Stream, he is nonpareil.
But Fierstein’s bigger-than-life presence rather overwhelms the more delicate conversational scenes of Gently Down the Stream. It’s not that he doesn’t try, even down to deploying a surprisingly good New Orleans accent. But that voice, those gestures, the timing!—who could forget for a moment whom we are actually watching?
I found myself wondering exactly whose story is being told here. I have the sense that much of it is based on Sherman himself, an openly out, Jewish American artist who now lives in London. But the authority of Fierstein’s delivery—and his status as a performer—puts his imprimatur on the material, too. And to add another level, Beau describes himself as Mabel Mercer’s pianist during much of her later career. In fact, her pianist was Stan Freeman—a real person who was not only a prominent musician (he composed the Broadway show, I Had a Ball, and served as musical director for Marlene Dietrich and others), but a wonderful raconteur. I had the pleasure of meeting Freeman several times in Los Angeles, where he—like Fierstein—could hold a room rapt with story. Since Freeman was also a portly Jewish gay man, I wonder about his unsung role in Gently Down the Stream.
Not that it matters. It’s a fine play, now at the New York Public Theater in what surely will be the definitive production, and not just because of Fierstein. I can’t imagine a more stylish, subtle directorial hand than Sean Mathias’s, and the design (scenery by Derek McLane, lights by Peter Kaczorowski) is gorgeous. (There’s also a terrific supporting performance by sexy Christopher Sears.)
What I do wonder about is the future of Gently Down the Stream. It’s possible that without Fierstein, the show won’t have much traction. But I hope it does—and, I’d love to see it again with another, less familiar actor. It’s very much a story—multiple stories, really—worth telling.
Gently Down the Stream plays at the New York Public Theater through May 21. For more information, visit the website.