Gabriel Ebert and Harvey Fierstein star in Martin Sherman's Gently Down the Stream, directed by Sean Mathias, at the Public Theater.
Gabriel Ebert and Harvey Fierstein star in Martin Sherman's Gently Down the Stream, directed by Sean Mathias, at the Public Theater.
(© Joan Marcus)

When we think of Harvey Fierstein, our mind likely goes to Broadway musicals: Hairspray, in which he played Edna; and Kinky Boots and La Cage aux Folles, for which he wrote the books. The new class of theatergoers don't really remember that Fierstein, that great big raspy bear-hug of an actor, got his start in the downtown theater scene of the 1970s, where he cut his teeth at venues like La MaMa, and most often acted in plays, many of which he wrote himself.

Martin Sherman's beautiful new drama Gently Down the Stream at the Public Theater is about historical memory — namely, why it's so important that the past is never forgotten. Fierstein plays Beau, a gay cocktail pianist of a certain age who has seen it all and been scarred by a lifetime of hurt. For those who know him only as the dowdy hausfrau from Hairspray or the scripter of Newsies, this is the opportunity to see Fierstein reclaim his own past and return to his nonmusical roots, up close and personal. Ultimately, this production is not an optional view: It's imperative for every theater fan to see it.

Gently Down the Stream begins on a morning in 2001. The night before, Beau, an American expat living in London, hooked up with 28-year-old Rufus (Tony winner Gabriel Ebert), a significantly younger man he met online. Their chemistry is undeniable and they both realize it. Rufus, a manic-depressive lawyer who is coming of age in a world where gay rights are rapidly evolving, is determined to give the relationship a try, while sixtysomething Beau is particularly wary, given the decades of disappointment that have forced him to keep his guard up. Eventually the two do find themselves as a cozy May-December couple, but with a few caveats; primarily, if Rufus ever finds himself entangled with a man his own age, Beau would allow it. Enter Harry (Christopher Sears), a tattooed performance artist.

Gabriel Ebert plays Rufus, and Christopher Sears plays Harry in Martin Sherman's Gently Down the Stream, directed by Sean Mathias, at the Public Theater.
Gabriel Ebert plays Rufus, and Christopher Sears plays Harry in Martin Sherman's Gently Down the Stream, directed by Sean Mathias, at the Public Theater.
(© Joan Marcus)

There's a Forrest Gump-ian quality to the play in that Beau was party to history on more than one occasion. As the late Mabel Mercer's longtime accompanist, Beau encountered the likes of James Baldwin, was present when the UpStairs Lounge burned down, and watched as one of his lovers died in his arms from an AIDS-related illness. He interacted with activists like Larry Kramer and philanthropists including Judy Peabody. Beau relates more than seven decades of gay life to us in a monologue that builds to an astonishing crescendo.

Works like these have a tendency to feel clumsy, with the hand and opinions of the author often apparent in heavy, broad strokes. Admittedly, Gently Down the Stream walks a tightrope between didactic and dramatic. But overall, it's a warm, lovely play about opening your heart, and Sean Mathias' production is gentle and absorbing.

The same can be said of Fierstein's performance, his best ever. There's no escaping the fact that he's Harvey Fierstein, with his signature gravelly voice and some hilariously outsize facial expressions. But what Fierstein brings to the role is a sense of personal history; like Beau, he has watched gay rights evolve first hand, too. His quietly devastating, beautiful turn gives the play its gravity and its heart.

Ebert, who has been developing the piece with Fierstein and Sherman since 2014, really comes into his own as the play progresses, expertly charting Rufus' growth from fast-talking twentysomething to stoic fortysomething. Their performances capture the affection these two men share, with Sears completing the trio not as an interloper but as an equal.

There's a lived-in feel to all three performances that extends through to the design. Derek McLane's stately set gives Beau's living room its own sense of antiquity, with framed photos and shelves of books lining the walls. Michael Krass' costumes are just as specific, defining each character in subtle ways. Peter Kaczorowski's lighting keeps the play in the realm of the theatrical, while also being realistic.

That Fierstein hasn't acted in a play in 30 years makes Gently Down the Stream an event from the get-go. It's imperative that any theater fan, especially the younger generation, should see it, if only to catch this legendary actor doing what he does best in a work that remembers the past, while keeping its eyes on the future.