Harvey Fierstein plays the Zelig of the gay world in Martin Sherman’s new play, “Gently Down the Stream,” which opened Wednesday at Off Broadway’s Public Theater. His character, a cabaret pianist named Beauregard, appears to have been at every significant LGBTQA happening in the last 60 years. Along the way he bumped into (or drops the names of) Larry Kramer, Truman Capote, James Baldwin, Tennessee Williams, Mabel Mercer (he was her pianist for many years) and a few other gay icons whose tales he tells.
These anecdotes don’t come easily. No, Beauregard refuses to reveal his tortured gay past at just the drop of a sash. Sherman has given him a prop boyfriend, Rufus (Gabriel Ebert), who’s much younger, interested in camp doings, and has to pry each anecdote out of the old man. Beauregard keeps putting up a fuss each time Rufus pressures him, and after a while you just want to scream out, “Oh, tell your damned stories and get this play going!”
Of course, halfway through “Stream” Beauregard can’t shut up about the trauma he has suffered as a persecuted gay man, and when he tells Rufus that he’s never ever going to talk about the love of his life, a dead guy named Kip, you know that in the end you’re going to have to hear all about Kip’s grizzly demise before the evening’s over. (No, he wasn’t massacred at the Stonewall riots, but close to it.)
Sean Mathias directs, and while nobody could make “Gently Down the Stream” anything but a pity party, it might help if Ebert had been directed not to skip around on stage so much. The Met Opera stopped having its singers skip in “The Barber of Seville” long ago. And then there’s Fierstein. When he’s sending up a heterosexual woman in “Hairspray,” he’s fun. Playing a gay man, he offers tedium and sympathy.
There’s also a problem with the very gay set design by Derek McLane. Beauregard lives in a London flat so spacious that it fully justifies his window treatments of green velvet curtains with gold fringe and tassels that are an exact replica of what Scarlett O’Hara used to try to seduce Rhett Butler in a post-bellum jail. What does this semi-retired piano player have to complain about?
“Gently Down the Stream” is about same-sex marriage and how older LGBTQAs can’t enjoy its benefits even when offered them. They’ve just suffered too much.
Michael McKeever’s “Daniel’s Husband,” which opened April 4 at the Cherry Lane Theatre under the auspices of Primary Stages, tells a similar story. It’s only marginally better, thanks to Joe Brancato, who directs his fine cast to play against type.
Anna Holbrook turns the evil mother into something other than a shrew. As the partner who doesn’t want to marry, Matthew Montelongo makes a lot of sense when he says he has no interest in aping the heterosexual lifestyle. And Leland Wheeler’s considerate care-giver turns every cliché about the young gay twinkie on its head.
Back in the bad old days of the closet, playwrights like Tennessee Williams and Edward Albee somehow managed to write wickedly funny, scabrous, insightful plays about straight people. “Daniel’s Husband” and “Gently Down the Stream,” perhaps, are the price of liberation.