Gay Rites Now

Steve, the ambitious new play by Mark Gerrard being presented by The New Group, belongs to a particular subset of gay theater that focuses exclusively on a group of homosexuals. The prototype, Mart Crowley’s The Boys in the Band (1968), reflected the self-loathing of its closeted characters, leavened with bitchy humor. (Its one ostensibly “straight” character may have been bisexual.) Later examples—Kevin Elyot’s My Night with Reg and Terrence McNally’s Love! Valour! Compassion! (both 1994); Peter Gill’s Certain Young Men (1999); and Chuck Ranberg’s End of the World Party (2000)—charted the difficulty of living in the age of AIDS and celebrated the nuclear families that gay people assembled to replace marriage or because of rejection by relatives.  

Gerrard’s play may be one of the first in the genre in which matrimony is no longer off the table. Apart from that milestone, however, the interests of its characters are mundane: the exhaustion of parenting, the temptations and repercussions of adultery, and alienation by digital communication. The specter of death is present, but in the form of Ashlie Atkinson’s lesbian buddy Carrie. Dying of cancer, she is one of two best friends to Matt McGrath’s Steven, often called Steve.

Steve’s other best bud is Matt (Mario Cantone), wed to Brian (Jerry Dixon). Steve focuses on the two sets of middle-aged partners navigating the new marital landscape. Steven is 47 and married to Stephen (Malcolm Gets); they have an 8-year-old son, Zack. Matt and Brian are childless. Providing complications are two other characters: Steve, a personal trainer who is never seen, and Esteban, a fetching young Argentinean waiter/dancer (Francisco Pryor Garat) whose path continually crosses Steven’s, until the inevitable occurs. If the conceit of the names is meant to signal that all gay men face fundamentally the same issues, the device comes off as excessively precious.

First among equals is McGrath’s character, and his decency is established by the way he helps the ailing Carrie. Even with the most sallow-faced crankiness, McGrath delivers warmth and a wry wit. Recalling a trip to the beach, he says, “I thought we were all at the beach having a great time… Four middle-aged men, and our occasional lady visitor, desperately interested in the slightest recognition that we’re still sexually desirable to the sexually desirable—or even to the almost-sexually desirable—secretly afraid that we’re not, but bravely clinging to the illusion—and each other—like a jaunty, gay Raft of the Medusa.”

But Steven has learned that Stephen is having an affair with Brian. Under Cynthia Nixon’s direction, we see it conducted through ribald sexting, shown on an upstage wall by Olivia Sebesky’s projections. Steven shields Matt from the truth, even after he learns that Brian has invited trainer Steve to move in, and with Matt, become a threesome. Moreover, that arrangement has been made possible by Steven’s taking in Carrie, grown sicker with her cancer and needing a place to stay. Feeling unappreciated and betrayed by Stephen, Steven pursues Esteban. It’s all fundamentally The Seven Year Itch, but multiplied and with twists.

One problem is that one never sees the relationship Stephen and Steven have before Steven’s discovery of incriminating evidence (which he keeps to himself), so the stakes are unclear. And Gets and McGrath have scant chemistry; they’re at odds from the first, and the former has a thankless part, frequently tapping on a cellphone in his hand as the audience reads the projections.

Nixon tries to lighten the tone using Broadway show music during scene changes (and in a prelude of roughly 20 minutes, when the cast stands around an upright and sings). And Gerrard ladles on musical-theater in-jokes relentlessly. Steve laments, “What kind of God would allow the movie version of Mame?” Matt talks about his upcoming three-way: “We’re excited. Excited and scared”—one of many direct references to Stephen Sondheim. Indeed, Steve’s drink of choice is a vodka stinger.

The unsettled tone may reflect the honest bewilderment of where gay life goes from here, but it looks only marginally different from what any relationship faces, except for the issue of sex. In a piquant but fleeting moment, Gerrard suggests that fidelity is an overrated construct. As Brian boasts to the group in the climactic scene: “I came this close to making out with the most beautiful boy in the kitchen who turned out to be the most beautiful girl. And maybe we made out a little anyway.”

The New Group presents Steve at the Pershing Square Signature Center (480 West 42nd St. between 9th and 10th Aves.) in Manhattan through Dec. 27. Evening performances are at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday-Friday and 8 p.m. on Saturday; matinees are at 2 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday, with special matinees on Dec. 16 and 23. For tickets, visit www.thenewgroup.org

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