“Steve,” a play produced by The New Group at the Signature Center, begins and ends with its characters singing show tunes, which is a lovely and appropriate touch by director Cynthia Nixon, since three of the characters were once singing waiters together with dreams of Broadway. That’s how they all met, decades ago. Where they are now, as middle-aged gay men (and one lesbian), is the subject of Mark Gerrard’s play, equal parts funny and sad, and so steeped in musical theater references that one could be forgiven for suspecting that the title is in part in homage to Stephen Sondheim. But only in part: Four of the characters are Steves.
Steven (Matt McGrath), who calls himself a “failed chorus boy,” is a stay-at-home dad to an (unseen) eight-year-old while his partner of 16 years, Stephen (Malcolm Gets) works as a lawyer. On Steven’s 47th birthday, the two celebrate at a restaurant with their oldest friends, Matt (Mario Cantone), who is in a couple with Brian (Jerry Dixon), and Carrie (Ashlie Atkinson.) However much we are meant to feel the warmth in this circle of friends, the playwright quickly introduces some chill. Carrie is dying; this, it seems clear, is why her long-time girlfriend moved out. And Steven has discovered that his Stephen has been naughty with (Matt’s) Brian – maybe just sexting, maybe more – which derails the relationship between the two Steves.
There are two more Steves – “Trainer Steve” (whom we only hear about) and Esteban (Francisco Pryor Garat) an Argentine dancer, who is the waiter for the soured birthday party, and, in something of a running gag, keeps on materializing in yet another part-time job he holds wherever the old friends congregate. Both of these Steves are in their 20’s, and offer something of a yardstick to measure how far the middle-aged characters have traveled – and how much they haven’t.
It’s not clear why there are so many Steves in “Steve” – maybe it’s a comment on the difficulty of maintaining your individual identity, or how similar people of a certain demographic can be, or perhaps it’s just whimsy. In any case, the playwright’s (and actors’) distinct characterizations manage to rescue each of the characters from this sea of Steves, even as they picture themselves in the aggregate. As Steven puts it, they are “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.”
“Steve” doesn’t blaze new ground; it can be seen as “Love! Valour! Compassion!: The Next Generation,” — the kind of play about gay love and friendship that Terrence McNally wrote 20 years ago, in the midst of AIDS and discrimination. Mark Gerrard makes no mention of either in “Steve,” which takes place in this current era of marriage equality that promises a more successful pursuit of happiness — at least theoretically.
The characters in “Steve” represent a narrow subset of knowing New Yorkers who mask their regrets and disappointments in the sophisticated banter they’ve absorbed from too many old movies, musicals and drawing room comedies – and wonder whether they should regret masking their regrets this way.
“Don’t you ever think it’s just noise?” Carrie asks Steven, “a giant waste of time that’s kept you and me from ever actually accomplishing anything?”
Still, the banter is entertaining, even when it’s a tad too good to be true-to-life:
“What kind of gay man has never had a three way?” Matt admonishes Steven.
“I’ve always had trouble multi-tasking,” Steven replies.
On the other hand, one of the best scenes in “Steve” is one in which Stephen is multitasking — talking on the phone (to both his mother and Steven’s mother) and simultaneously texting and sexting with Steven and Brian and yelling at both Carrie and Zack in the other room, a scene that employs Olivia Sebesky’s simple projections and David Van Tieghem’s sound design to hilarious effect.
In such scenes, “Steve” reflects a quote that Esteban cites from the book he’s reading by choreographer Twyla Tharp: “If a thing moves, it lives.” That’s one quote with which the middle-aged characters are unfamiliar, since it didn’t come from a musical.
“Steven’s not much of a reader,” Stephen apologizes.
“I read,” Steven protests.
“What do you read?” Carrie asks.
Stephen answers for Steven: “Playbills.”
Click on any photograph by Monique Carboni to see it enlarged.
The New Group at Signature Center
Written by Mark Gerrard; Directed by Cynthia Nixon
Scenic Design by Allen Moyer, Costume Design by Tom Broecker, Lighting Design by Eric Southern, Sound Design by David Van Tieghem, and Projection Design by Olivia Sebesky. Music Coordinator is Seth Rudetsky.
Cast: Ashlie Atkinson, Mario Cantone, Jerry Dixon, Francisco Pryor Garat, Malcolm Gets and Matt McGrath
Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission
Tickets: $27 to $97. Rush tickets are $25.
“Steve” is scheduled to run through December 27
Update: “Steve” has been extended to January 3.