The play Gently Down the Stream (by way of January 9 at New Conservatory Theatre Heart)—making its West Coast premiere—opens with a scene acquainted to many-a-rom-com-viewer: “the morning after.” As George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” performs, the lights come up on a classy London flat to disclose shirtless younger Rufus (Daniel Redmond) and silk-robed Beau (Donald Currie) hours after a type of “I don’t often do that” form of nights. There’s awkward dialogue and acknowledgement of the age distinction between the 2, however there’s little doubt to a well-versed viewers that that is simply the beginning for these two.
It’s all principally well-done, however one can’t assist however surprise the place they’ve seen this scene earlier than. That’s the principle drawback with the play: It smacks of over-familiarity. As written by Martin Sherman (playwright behind the landmark 1979 play Bent), this 2017 work seems like its writer wished to make a middle-of-the-road contribution to an already overcrowded style, as if he have been making an attempt to channel Wendy Wasserstein’s sharp and beneficiant observations, however fell brief. Even in its narrative machine of leaping forward in time a number of years (the play begins some level within the ‘90s and ends someday within the 2000s) to comply with the evolution of this homosexual relationship, one is reminded of Terrence McNally’s 2007 play Some Males, which performed at NCTC in 2009.
There’s nothing flawed with an writer wanting to inform a well-recognized story, as long as the writer could make it their very own. Sadly, Sherman’s play is much less populated with characters than it’s with character traits. Chatterbox Rufus is outlined by his neuroses (which the play suggests might or might not be the results of bi-polar dysfunction) and his affinity for “previous” issues. The New Orleans-born Beau is outlined by his being the product of a bygone period: The place as soon as this completed pianist rubbed elbows with the likes of James Baldwin and Nina Simone, he’s now befuddled by the unusual sorcery often called “e-mail.”
What’s extra, the connection between the 2 is so keen to leap forward that it doesn’t actually evolve naturally. We go from the opening scene of Beau, sufferer of a number of heartbreaks, wanting to maintain the enticing Rufus at a distance solely to have the subsequent scene discover them residing collectively years later. At the least, we expect it’s years later—there isn’t a lot to point the passage of time aside from the occasional line of dialogue right here and there. Thoughts you, Kuo-Hao Lo’s intricate set, with its post-Victorian tapestries, Dorothy Parker-esque writing desk, and fashionable fridge within the distant kitchen, is fantastically embellished and a tremendous showcase for the designer, but it surely by no means modifications over the course of the story.
One is tempted to suppose that’s the purpose, however Beau and Rufus do change over the course of their multi-year relationship. Every goes back-and-forth between wanting and never wanting youngsters; every modifications their thoughts about their job (Rufus works in a agency, Beau is a cabaret pianist), and every has medical considerations by way of which the opposite should assist. Throughout all of this, we’re sometimes aware of video testimonials Beau permits Rufus to file. The purpose of the recordings isn’t all that clear, however given the best way Rufus additionally needs to transform Beau’s VHS assortment to DVD, maybe there’s something to the thought of Beau’s condominium representing his incapability to completely transfer ahead?
Sadly, the opposite hindrance conserving one from being totally immersed within the story is a pair of manufacturing decisions that muddle issues a bit. The primary is the casting of Redmond as Rufus. Earlier productions had each characters white and that’s all of the extra obvious when Beau talks of his previous jazz days. After their first night time, Beau remarks about how Rufus (Redmond is Black) reminds him of James Baldwin, which suggests a fetishization on Beau’s half that’s by no means addressed. In truth, race isn’t introduced up in any respect—solely how Rufus “didn’t slot in” as a teen due to his affinity for older generations. It’s good that the NCTC went for a various solid, however doing so raises questions that the textual content doesn’t reply.
The opposite technical drawback is the performances. As directed by Arturo Catricala, each Redmond and Currie keep on the identical be aware all through the complete present. Redmond’s Rufus is grating, high-pitched, and scattered, like a four-year-old on a sugar-high; Currie’s Beau is the alternative, subdued to the purpose the place his occasional offended outburst appears out of character. When actor Sal Mattos later joins the present as Harry, the belated third member of Beau and Rufus’s relationship, his drag efficiency of “The Man I Love” (additionally by Gershwin) is appropriately showy, however he doesn’t fairly have a agency grasp on the British accent.
There are a fantastic many tales like this already and there will probably be extra to come back. In truth, NCTC only recently produced a great one with Plot Factors in Our Sexual Growth. It’s honest recreation for an writer as famend as Sherman, however the play will seemingly be nothing greater than a facet be aware in his profession. The NCTC’s tackle it will get the technical down pat, however the skinny textual content and off-key performances make it too light by far.
GENTLY DOWN THE STREAM runs by way of January 9 on the New Conservatory Theatre Heart, San Francisco. Extra information and tickets here.