One of the memories of Beau (Harvey Fierstein), a repository of memories of the bad old days of gay life, is of a night in a Manhattan YMCA, once a celebrated site of gay sex. One man was so happy that he had sex that he started singing "Row, Row, Row Your Boat." Soon from all the rooms there was a chorus of the familiar round -- the voices of lonely, damaged gay men who had had a moment of sex and companionship. Beau has a lot of sadder memories--of a lover killed in a terrible fire, set by a homophobe, in a New Orleans gay bar and of a lover destroyed by AIDS. He also has tender memories of his relationship with James Baldwin and his piano playing for Mabel Mercer who sang songs written by men of desire for men but made "respectable" by being sung by a woman. Beau, now living in London and playing piano at a gay club, has obviously been damaged by what he has lived through. Enter Rufus (the wonderful Gabriel Ebert), a young bipolar lawyer and what was supposed to be a one-night stand turns into a relationship. Rufus is attracted to older men in general and Beau in particular and wants the relationship to be permanent but Beau is too damaged by his history to accept legal recognition of their life together. Martin Sherman's sweet, funny play traces a decade in their ever-changing relationship. Sherman's play alternates scenes with monologues in which Beau recounts the most important moments in his past. The gay world has changed since he was Rufus's age and Beau at least can give the new world his blessing.
I've never been Harvey Fierstein's greatest fan but here he gives a beautifully modulated performance. There's some of the Fierstein schtick, but moments that are genuinely moving. Gabriel Ebert, as always, is charismatic onstage. What a talent! Christopher Sears gives substance to his underwritten role as the man Rufus marries.
GENTLY DOWN THE STREAM isn't a masterpiece but well worth seeing, particularly for the teamwork of Fierstein and Ebert who obviously love performing together.
A POSTSCRIPT....The night after I saw GENTLY DOWN THE STREAM I had the pleasure of seeing the fine new production of DER ROSENKAVALIER at the Met, the best of this season's new productions, most of which have had strong musical values but weak or misguided direction and/or design. In a way, GENTLY DOWN THE STREAM is a version of the ROSENKAVALIER story--a mature person can't trust his relationship with an ardent younger lover and nobly accepts that lovers new young love. This story in various forms has been a part of gay fiction and drama.