The gay experience has been well documented on stage — be it the intimate portraits of community and romance during a time of oppression ("Love! Valour! Compassion!," "The Boys in the Band"), the tragedy of the AIDS epidemic ("The Normal Heart," "Angels in America"), or the celebration of life and love in a modern world ("Mothers and Sons," "Significant Other").
Harvey Fierstein has lived through them all. Heck, in many ways, the 62-year-old playwright and actor helped shaped how our culture viewed members of the gay community in the early 1980s with his groundbreaking play "Torch Song Trilogy" — and has continued to push the movement further with each one of his works since ("La Cage aux Folles," "Kinky Boots," "Casa Valentina").
In Martin Sherman's nice new drama "Gently Down the Stream," now open at The Public Theater, Fierstein plays a bitter man named Beau — who like the actor himself, has seen his fair share of the ugly side of gay American history. But unlike the bold and beloved pioneer playing him, Beau is paralyzed by his past.
The audience, in turn, becomes trapped in Beau's own anxieties about his future. And despite the play's best intentions to have us root for Beau to get out of his own way and embrace the love around him, his inability to do so makes "Gently Down the Stream" a very monotonous journey.
Perhaps it's that the stakes for Beau are not as high as they need to be. It's not that nothing of consequence happens throughout the 100-minute story. But like "Row, Row, Row Your Boat" — the song that inspires the play's title and serves as its metaphor for gay advancement — Beau's life feels like a round, and we desperately need Sherman to break the mold here and row this boat into some rapid waters.
Early on, it appears the character of Rufus might be able to do just that. The energetic and enthusiastic lawyer (played by the delightful Gabriel Ebert) does his best to drag Beau out of his comfort zone. As the two enter into a May/December romance, there are glimpses that Beau might find change. But every step he makes forward is met with fear and insecurity — too appealing and familiar for the aging pianist to leave behind.
By the time Rufus character decides to leave Beau for a man even younger than he (Christopher Sears, as the eccentric performance artist Harry), Beau's stubbornness has become so ingrained into the fabric of the story that it's hard to feel sad for him. You know that it won't break him. After all, this is what he wanted all along.
None of this is to say that watching "Gently Down the Stream" is a particularly bad experience. The performances are strong — especially the one from Fierstein, whose natural charm and rapport with his castmates helps him transcend the distracting New Orleans accent he's chosen. Director Sean Mathias keeps the action moving well, and wisely allows for Sherman's exquisite monologues to take center stage. (The most touching moment being when Beau recalls losing a lover in the UpStairs Lounge arson attack — the 1973 fire at the vibrant gay bar in the French Quarter of New Orleans that took the lives of 32 people). And Derek McLane's beautifully detailed set gives endless treasures to uncover when the action on stage dims.
It was refreshing to see multiple generations of gay people talking to one another — without any being particularly critical about the other's past or ideas for the future. But in the end, "Gently Down the Stream" didn't rock the boat enough.
"Gently Down the Stream" at The Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street. Tickets, on sale through May 21, Tickets starting at $60. Call 212.539.8605.