Beauregard, the central character of Martin Sherman’s new play, Gently Down the Stream, lives alone in an apartment swallowed by his past. Derek McLane’s set is filled with floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall shelves of books, framed pictures, tiny lamps, and most notably, many closed boxes. These boxes are representative of Beau’s sixty-plus years of history and with the arrival of, as he calls it, an “assignation” from a gay dating site, that history will be pried open.
Beau is embodied in an sensitive and nuanced performance by Harvey Fierstein. Eclipsed for the past fourteen years by his iconic and much-reprised performance as Edna Turnblad in Hairspray, it is surprising to be reminded so evocatively of the depths of his talent. This is a character crafted with attention to the smallest detail, drawn with a deft hand and a personal touch. It is dull to discuss Fierstein’s voice – a road well-traveled – but it is unavoidable when he is using it in such an interesting way. His scratches and rasps are here the debris of six decades. That he then weaves a convincing Louisiana accent through these ridges is a feat that must be heard to be believed.
The play is structured with a series of extended monologues interspersed among the scenes. Fierstein slips between the sentences like familiar streets in his neighborhood. He makes it look almost impossibly facile. The monologues are tense and hilarious, and peer directly into the enormous heart of this character who, we gradually learn, has suffered great pain. These are open, vulnerable glimpses through his hard veneer.
The monologues begin as taped interviews by the aforementioned “assignation.” Rufus (Gabriel Ebert) is English and thirty-three years younger than Beau. The play begins in 2001, post-coitus, and Beau thinks it is a one-night stand. Rufus, however, is fascinated with Beau’s past as cabaret singer Mabel Mercer’s accompanist (he has used a new invention called a “search engine” to learn about this man he met online). Rufus assimilates himself into Beau’s life and the men talk, snuggle, and eat popcorn as the years go by.
Gently Down the Stream covers thirteen years in 100 minutes. It is a testament to the strength of the writing and the rich performances that the relationship between these characters feels lived-in and true. Ebert and Fierstein have a natural chemistry. They touch and hold each other with electric sparks. The age gap, so unorthodox to Beau, is immaterial to Rufus. Endlessly inventive, Ebert’s line readings and physical relation to the space are always unexpected: watch the variety of ways Ebert sits in a chair in his first scene. Rufus suffers from bipolar disorder and his manic swings, in Ebert’s hands, are jubilantly high and devastatingly low. Fierstein effectively conveys Beau’s attraction to this instability as well as the wariness mingled with it. Ebert uses his long, lanky form to move Rufus from twenty-eight to thirty-five when, in a pivotal scene set in 2008, a revelation is made and the course of the play changes.
It is at this point that the third character, Harry (Christopher Sears), is introduced. Sears is an actor of great abandon. He stormed the stage in the Pearl Theater’s Stupid F*cking Bird, and shook the church basement in Lincoln Center Theater’s The Harvest. He is similarly thundering in Gently Down the Stream as a performance artist of a younger generation who ruptures Beau’s and Rufus’ domestic bliss.
In his first scene, Harry lifts an armchair and plops it down in a new position. Beau is startled by this, but eventually lets it stay where it is. Harry’s breaking of Beau’s furniture arrangement parallels his breaking of Beau’s relationship with Rufus. This is a prime example of the intelligence of Sean Mathias’ direction. The men move around this apartment, on and off and over the furniture, in images laden with meaning; the physical positions of bodies sometimes ingeniously telling a different story than the one they are telling each other. There is a great use of mirrored staging, where actors reflect the position in which they stood in an earlier scene, highlighting the refractions of time and shifting power.
Martin Sherman’s Gently Down the Stream is a play about carrying the past with us, understanding where we’ve come from and how we arrived, who we are to each other and who we should be. It is not bombastic; there is no shouting, there are almost no arguments. Its tension derives from the audience’s investment in the love the characters have for each other.
Gently Down the Stream is on until 21st May 2017 at the Public Theater. Click here for more details.