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Gay History in the Age of Grindr: Gabriel Ebert Goes Gently Down the Stream

The Tony-winning star of Matilda appears opposite Harvey Fierstein, the multiple Tony-winning author of Kinky Boots who is making his first nonmusical stage appearance in nearly 30 years.

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 Gabriel Ebert got the chance to make out with Harvey Fierstein onstage, he immediately said yes. "The opportunity to perform opposite Harvey is incredibly exciting," Ebert said of Gently Down the Stream, a new play by Martin Sherman (Bent) that is now making its world premiere at the Public Theater.

Ebert and Fierstein play Rufus and Beau, two gay men living in London at the turn of the millennium. Rufus is a young lawyer, while Beau is a pianist who has rubbed elbows with the likes of Mabel Mercer and James Baldwin. They meet on the Internet for a one-night stand that proves to be so much more as they become intimately involved in each other's lives over the following 12 years. Christopher Sears also appears in the play, which is directed by Sean Mathias.

Ebert is eager to tell this story of idiosyncratic gay relationships and untold gay history with off-Broadway audiences, but he first shared a few thoughts with TheaterMania:

Gabriel Ebert stars in Gently Down the Stream at the Public Theater. He last appeared on Broadway in Thérèse Raquin.
(© David Gordon)

What interested you in this story?
A lot of the play is about gay history — history that hasn't been written down and has been marginalized. I think that gay men of my generation hunger for history that we have heard about, but we don't really know. A lot of the time we don't learn that from our families, but our extended families of other men in this world. My character, Rufus, enters the story really hungry for that connection, and he has to convince Beau to let him stay along for the ride.

How did you get involved in the play?
Harvey Fierstein was reading this script when I was performing in his last play, Casa Valentina. He asked me to come along and read it too. He hasn't performed in a straight play in almost 30 years. It's a vulnerable spot for him to be in, but because of the relationship we built, we both felt really safe with each other building this.

Gabriel Ebert plays Rufus, and Harvey Fierstein plays Beau in Gently Down the Stream.
(© Joan Marcus)

Do you have anything in common with your character?
Rufus is a young man who is obsessed with the past. I'm an old-fashioned man in my own way. Sharing the rehearsal room with Martin Sherman and Sean Mathias and Harvey Fierstein, these great men of the theater, has been a lot about me soaking up their knowledge and shared history, trying to channel that into my character. Also, one of my greatest friends growing up was my dog, Rufus. He was with me until I was 16. So Rufus has always been a significant name in my life. I'm happy to be playing a character with that name. I try to sneak in little personality traits of Rufus into my performance. Of course, this Rufus is a London lawyer who wears expensive suits and fashionable linen pants.

How closely did you work with the costume designer, Michael Krass?
Michael has a very cool way of working where he buys a rack of clothing, and he puts me in the room with the clothes and walks away to give me time to try things on and see what I respond to. After 10 minutes, he comes back with his assistant, who had done a lot of the shopping, and we discuss the things that resonate with me and what he thinks would be a strong choice for my character. I've never quite had that experience before, but it was really fun.

What kind of research did you do?
So much of the background information in this play is the kind that isn't written, but is passed down from person to person. One character who comes up a lot is Jean Malin, a pansy entertainer in the '20s and '30s. I wanted to find film of Jean Malin performing. I also looked for footage of Mabel Mercer, a cabaret performer who Beau worked with. James Baldwin is also a real person that makes his way into Beau's stories, so I went and saw that great documentary on James Baldwin I Am Not Your Negro.

What is the biggest lesson you've learned from Harvey Fierstein as an actor?
I take things very seriously when I'm working. I can get very technical. Harvey shakes me out of that and makes sure I'm spontaneous and playful and fun. I seek and crave that, but my brain gets in the way. Sean, our director, has also been instrumental. Sometimes you have to turn that logic off and make sure you can surprise yourself and others.

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)

Does anything scare you about this role?
I always try to work on things that make me a little uncomfortable, and for this play, that's the passage of time. At the beginning of the play, Rufus is a young man at a law firm just starting his adult life; in 12 years he has become very successful. Also, this is a story about maintaining a deep love for someone who has wounded you. It's something that I don't think happens very much in the heteronormative American world. To authentically dive into that kind of story is eye-opening, and I hope we can pass it on to our audience.