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Steve

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray


Malcom Gets, Jerry Dixon, Mario Cantone, and Matt McGrath
Photo by Monique Carboni

Some 15 minutes before the start of Steve, the new play written by Mark Gerrard and directed by Cynthia Nixon that just opened at the Pershing Square Signature Center as a production of The New Group, the cast gathers around an onstage piano to belt their way through some classic show tunes. We're talking catchy stuff here: "Together" from Gypsy; "All That Jazz" from Chicago; "Bosom Buddies" from Mame. And so on, through some half a dozen choice selections sung by people who either have solid musical theatre bona fides (Malcolm Gets, Matt McGrath, Jerry Dixon), or who might as well (Mario Cantone, Ashlie Atkinson). These pre-opening festivities launch the show onto a high from which it never fully descends for the 90 minutes it runs.

The bit, however, makes a chillingly serious point even as it generates plenty of fun (and, just so you know, some light thematic spoilers). This language—and that's what it is—is the sort spoken by those who view the illusion of the theatre as being more real than the real world in which they're all enmeshed. If there's nothing inherently wrong with that, it becomes dangerous when make-believe begins to replace the actual on a level above the Stephen Sondheim lyrics that constitute seemingly half of the characters' dialogue. You're having a great time while watching them having a great time, but what you're really observing is a group whose denial is poised to be shattered at the slightest upset.

So it's not surprising that Gerrard wastes no time in showing us what happens in just such a case. At his birthday party, the fortysomething Steven (McGrath) is distracted by the recent discovery that his husband, Stephen (Gets), is not as faithful as he believed. After prying Stephen's smartphone from the hands of their 8-year-old son, Zachary, Steven found, ahem, explicit evidence that Stephen has communicating with Brian (Dixon) on a rather extramarital level—and both Brian and his partner, Matt (Cantone), are at dinner with Steven, Stephen, and their close friend (Carrie). What to do when one's existence comes crashing down in such a circumstance?


Matt McGrath with Ashlie Atkinson and Francisco Pryor Garaf
Photo by Monique Carboni

What indeed. The following scenes chart the next year in the lives of this quintet as Steven and Stephen try to work out the kinks in their relationship, Matt and Brian add new kinks to theirs with the help of their handsome 24-year-old personal trainer named Steve, and Carrie battles breaking up with her own girlfriend while she's trying to battle cancer. Along the way, Gerrard is determined to show how extraordinarily ordinary everyone is, focusing on the basics of emotional confusion, loss, and even the frustration texting introduces into commonplace interaction. (Several scenes rely on Olivia Sebesky's projections on the rear wall of Allen Moyer's modern-minimalist set to present the content—usually hilarious and emotionally laden—of the texts that, like those Sondheim quotes, so often replace words in the Steve vernacular.)

Gerrard handles it all smoothly and honestly, if with a minimum of sticky sentimentality: The characters, particularly Carrie and Steven, are clear-eyed about the options before them, and address them in the proper no-nonsense terms. It's not always pleasant watching ugly truths creep into the ghostlit fantasy in which all these people are living, but Gerrard ensures that even his harsher critiques amusing. (Steven: "You've hired a live-in prostitute!" Matt: "He's not a prostitute." Steven: "Is he paying rent?" Matt, spitting with indignation: "He's saving for law school.") And when the comedy all but fades away, there is sincere heart to be found beneath the thick armor that's been chipped away. You can hide, Gerrard insists, but not forever.

Nixon has coaxed impressive performances out of all of her actors, wisely playing up the personalities for which many of them are already known. Cantone is bracingly, if seriously, broad, his Matt obviously adoring everything about the wild life he's living while acknowledging what a rare gift it is. Gets has honed Stephen's neuroticism to a fine point, but applied to it an overlay of sensitivity that makes you see his side even when you'd rather not. McGrath, recently so good in The Legend of Georgia McBride, plays Steven in a constant state of half-collapse that highlights his innate vulnerability and his resulting poor choices. And Atkinson buries a quiet terror within the brash Carrie, forcing you to see her as more than just a victim. Dixon and Francisco Pryor Garaf (as a Steven-eyeing waiter who's always in the right place at the wrong time) are less distinct in their more functional parts, but fine overall.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about Steve is how it compares to a strikingly similar play that also just opened, Peter Parnell's Dada Woof Papa Hot at Lincoln Center. Both deal with middle-age gay couples battling infidelity over a number of months, with past expectations and mistakes looming over an even-more-uncertain present. But if Parnell's play promotes an upscale, conservative spin on the topic, Gerrard's works harder to pinpoint the unique difficulties and expectations with gay relationships, if also in a funnier way (though it also gets sadder at points). Those interested in this subject matter would be advised to see both if possible, as the two contrasting arguments, taken together, appear to present a single, rounded picture of the challenges facing gay marrieds today.

In any event, everyone will find something to relate to in Steve, as learning the boundaries of our imaginations is a universal experience. Things may not always end happily, but so what? Whether the curtain comes down on a comedy or a tragedy (or, if you will, a Wonderful Town or a Sweeney Todd), the important thing is that the curtain comes down and find our way, however awkwardly, once the lights go up and we're once again seeing the world for what it is and not merely what we'd like it to be.


Steve
Through December 27
Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre at the Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street between Dyer and 10th Avenues
Tickets and current performance schedule: TicketCentral


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