Stepping into the Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre at the Pershing Square Signature Center is kind of like teleporting over to Marie's Crisis in the West Village: The cast of Mark Gerrard's Steve (now making its world premiere with the New Group) stands around a piano belting out show tunes as we take our seats. Oh no, another play about New York theater people, one might think. Certainly, the outward appearance of Steve looks familiar, but that is just the first impression of a play that is witty, intelligent, and accessibly experimental.
The show begins with stay-at-home dad Steven (Matt McGrath) celebrating his birthday at a fancy Manhattan restaurant. His partner, Stephen (Malcolm Gets), is there with Steven's two oldest friends, Carrie (Ashlie Atkinson) and Matt (Mario Cantone). Steven suspects that Stephen is having an affair with Matt's partner, Brian (Jerry Dixon); he has the sexts to prove it. This highly theatrical former singing waiter (Carrie, Matt, and Steven all used to work at a low-rent version of Ellen's Stardust Diner) has to decide whether he will go nuclear in front of his friends or just seethe while knocking back a vodka stinger. "AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA I’ll drink to that," he says before ordering another round from sexy Argentinian server Esteban (Francisco Pryor Garat). Everyone in the audience silently thinks, He better get a good tip out of this.
Considering that half of the characters are named some iteration of "Steve," there's something queerly absurdist about this play. We recognize elements of our own lives, but everything is heightened in an almost operatic way, apt for this tribe of musical theater queens. Gerrard maintains a constant playfulness with his characters. We care about them, but never so much that we can't laugh at their foibles. As the play progresses, we see them grapple with infidelity, polyamory, child-rearing, and looming death. Midlife ennui has never been so simultaneously hilarious and dramatic.
Director Cynthia Nixon (making her sophomore directorial outing following last season's Rasheeda Speaking) establishes the show's frenetic rhythm in the first scene. The characters talk over one another in counterpoint, juggling multiple conversations at once. Oh yes, these are New Yorkers.
Gerrard and Nixon add a contemporary twist to the organized chaos by projecting text messages between the characters on the back wall (simple and effective projections by Olivia Sebesky). A scene in which Gets juggles two phone calls and several text threads (one of which is X-rated) is a masterful tour de force that more accurately captures the way we communicate in the 21st century than any previous attempt I've seen onstage.
Allen Moyer's set evokes location using a minimum of furniture, ensuring that the forward motion of the play never flags. Music coordinator Seth Rudetsky underscores these zippy transitions with selections from popular musicals, giving us just a moment to compute the scene we've just encountered while also reinforcing the world of the play.
On top of that, the characters pepper their prose with casual references to their chosen obsession. "You’ve always led your life like 'Act II: Walpurgisnacht'," Matt remarks to Steven. If you didn't catch that allusion to Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, don't worry, you're not alone. It really doesn't matter though: Cantone's delivery is loud and clear enough to convey the epic shade he's throwing at his oldest friend.
McGrath (who recently slayed in The Legend of Georgia McBride) graciously returns the favor. One of the most exciting comic actors presently working in New York, McGrath knocks Gerrard's laugh lines out of the park. He also brings a surprising depth to Steven, a man clearly struggling with the disappointment of fulfilling the clichéd gay American dream.
All of the performances are excellent: Dixon embodies the archetypal sexy daddy. Atkinson breaks our hearts as Carrie, the brassy lesbian bravely confronting a terminal illness (one gets the sense that she's a lot stronger than any of the men around her). As Esteban, Garat's smoldering flirtation is awfully aggressive, yet undeniably true to form. In fact, all of the acting in Steve feels truthful. Sure, between McGrath and Cantone nary a piece of scenery is left unchewed, but considering the specific demographic Gerrard is chronicling, this is hardly an inappropriate choice.
Steve is charming, heartfelt, and insightful in its own quirky way. Undeniably, it offers a far more astute take on the collision of gay culture and heteronormativity in the age of "equality" than certain other recent attempts. Steve is everything a play should be: entertaining, thematically daring, and fearlessly innovative in the presentation of a good story.