Harvey Fierstein’s Epic Sweep of LGBT History: Review of ‘Gently Down The Stream’
In Martin Sherman’s ‘Gently Down The Stream’ an age-gap romance provides a prism to explore a swathe of turbulent LGBT history.
In some ways Beau’s apartment in Martin Sherman’s beautiful play, Gently Down The Stream, is lost in time—just like a lot of what we come to hear about his life, and the sweep of LGBT history Gently evokes.
This Public Theater play, directed by Sean Mathias (the two men worked together most notably in gay concentration camp drama Bent), is both a memorialization, and a bringing back to life—both of 70-plus years of LGBT history and of Beau. (Or “Beauregard,” to give him his proper Southern, Jeff Sessions-echoing first name.)
London, we know is outside its windows—when Beau (Harvey Fierstein) opens the windows we hear the peal of church bells—but inside is the comfortable accumulation of a life: books, a piano, lamps on packed shelves, sofas, a chair, and, partially hidden, a kitchen and bedroom.
Beau is in his fifties. He plays piano professionally in a Covent Garden cabaret bar. He’s gay, and boy he’s lived, and he comes with Fierstein’s distinctively throaty voice. You worry for that voice, and you are bewitched by it—and you may remember it being used to tell a more modest sweep of 1970s and ’80s gay history in Fierstein’s own Torch Song Trilogy.
Gently spans 13 years, 2001-2014, and so don’t think anything more arch than historical specificity is happening when you hear the first mentions of “Gaydar” and “Google.” This is how Beau has come to meet Rufus (Gabriel Ebert), a lithe and excitable young lawyer who’s, handily, into older guys.
The humorous early tension of the play sees the distinctly manic Rufus trying to elicit as many tales from Beau as possible about his early life, and about figures from the past like Mabel Mercer, the famous mixed-race cabaret singer. Beau receives all these entreaties to dish suspiciously: Why does this hyperactive young man want to know so much?
After chapters of their relationship play out, they may disappear into kitchen and bedroom, which must have a hidden set of passageways built in by designer Derek McLane, because a few seconds later the same characters appear walking through another door.
Much of the play is about the trajectory of their relationship interspersed with Beau’s tales of the past.
Beau’s heart and head have been so scarred by experience it is hard for him to believe that Rufus offers any chance of happiness, while Rufus is bipolar, and refuses to take medication.
He also doesn’t feel part of the mainstream gay scene. With Beau he has found his own kind of fit. The men seem utterly isolated not just from other gays, but the city around them.
Ebert is a genial but not emphatic presence on stage, and Beau and Rufus’s relationship seems odd in the beginning, with Rufus seeming a little too strange to immediately command Beau’s devotion enough to let him move in. But a contentment settles.
This is Fierstein’s show—that voice commands a stage, and he tinkers with it too, ranging from an angry, booming bass to playful theatrical camp. Just wait for him to go boggle-eyed for “hot chocolate” to hear how that should always be pronounced.
To remove us from the somewhat claustrophobic, drapey lounge, Mathias has Fierstein sit on a chair and in a spotlight (Rufus supposedly filming these interludes) to recite his history. These monologues are when the play is at its most piercing.
You are absolutely with Beau as he recalls growing up gay. And you are with him again, remembering his adventures with one dear friend, an actor who with a troupe would head off to Greece every summer to perform classic Greek plays for bemused locals.
That friend died of AIDS, which leads Beau to praise the activism of direct action group Act Up and particularly Larry Kramer.
He recalls stories he had heard of New York’s famed Astor Bar where servicemen caroused in World War II, and particularly of one night when, post-sex at a YMCA, one of those servicemen began singing, “Row, row, row your boat, Gently down the stream. Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, Life is but a dream.”
Soon, the happy ditty was being sung by a host of unseen male voices in neighboring rooms.
There is another friend Beau does not want to tell us about. He only does so near the very end, revealing the story of the pair being at the gay UpStairs Lounge in New Orleans, the night in June 1973 when 32 died in a blazing inferno there. Beau popped out to get some headache tablets. His friend stayed, and died in the terrible arson attack.
The precisely sketched anger and pain Mathias evokes is both personal and political—Beau remembering how the bodies of victims would not be claimed by some families; the mockery of the newspapers; the lack of sympathy on the part of official agencies; the sight of a burnt body still clinging to the iron bars that covered the second-floor windows.
The UpStairs Lounge attack has been mostly forgotten, and even if it feels like a slightly forced topical inclusion here it is heartening to see it in both Gently and The ViewUpstairs, running through May 21.
The more domestic parts of Gently are perhaps sketched a little too lightly: Beau and Rufus’s relationship expires quietly and politely. Harry (Christopher Sears), a loud and initially grating performance artist, enters the scene. You may relish Fierstein’s magnificent eyeroll at the revelation of Harry’s job, and the enquiry of that means he removes a phone from his backside.
Still, Harry’s arrival (he is very of the post-queer moment, sporting beard plus makeup) challenges Beau to move with the times, if only he will let himself. Suddenly, he must get his head around a new set of modern mores: gay marriage, parenthood, and—more profoundly—the possibility that being gay, that Beau’s being gay, can also mean Beau being happy, and that past tragedies and heartbreak do not need to define him.
That in itself may feel an arcane theme—LGBT movies, plays, and TV of today have pacier, juicier stories to tell—but Gently Down The Stream emphasizes that embracing equality and openness should not mean negating or forgetting the grittier indignities and battles endured and conducted by others, much older—many now dead—and certainly much braver in far harder times. For Sherman this history is both vital, and vital to remember and transmit.
Gently also suggests that it isn’t just placards and polemics that are vital to living well, but also embracing whatever joy there is to be found in living in the present—just as the soldiers did that night long ago at the YMCA.
Gently Down The Stream is at the Public Theater, NYC, until May 21. Book tickets here.