We gave it a B-
Another week, another troubled-gay-dads play.
That is perhaps unfair to Steve, which opened last night in a New Group production at the Signature Center. But it’s also unavoidable. Steve tracks the travails of a long-partnered gay couple, with a new (and unseen) young son, who run into relationship trouble. And it arrives nine days after Dada Woof Papa Hot, which explores much the same territory.
Also, while slickly (if too playfully) staged by director Cynthia Nixon, Steve — written by Mark Gerrard — is an inferior play. It’s an enjoyable 90 minutes, with laugh-out-loud moments, but it’s also mostly meaningless. Funny, but glib.
As the audience enters the theater, the cast is gathered around an upright piano on a bare stage, singing showtunes. They’re not singers, really, but they’re game, and they’re enjoying themselves. It’s a bit like walking into an even more performative version of Marie’s Crisis, the West Village sing-along piano bar. When curtain time comes, someone calls “places,” and the play begins. But the tone has been set: The evening is to be a rollicking good time.
And so it seems, at first, as we see a sharp-tongued and sassy pair catching up in a fancy restaurant. Stephen (Malcolm Gets) and Carrie (Ashlie Atkinson) are at a table, awaiting the rest of their party. It’s clear that they’re old friends, but it’s also quickly clear that Carrie is sick, presumably undergoing chemo, which would explain the headscarf. (A character in the play comments that she looks like Steven Van Zandt, a few scenes after I’d written the same thing in my notes.) Eventually, Stephen’s partner, Steven (Matt McGrath), arrives — the play is called Steve, get it? — and then his best friend, Matt (Mario Cantone), and Matt’s boyfriend, Brian (Jerry Dixon). Finally, there’s the flirty waiter at this Argentine restaurant, Esteban (Francisco Pryor Garat) — get it, again? (There’s also an unseen “Trainer Steve.”)
It’s a jokey and musicals-quoting crowd, with references to lyrics from Gypsy and Company and to the production history of Evita. The witty wordplay isn’t all Sondheim-based: Carrie insists that Steven and Stephen are the couple, that together with their son, Zack, they’re “in The Ad” — “the ad where the two of you are with The Kid by the Viking stove in your island kitchen and you’re all, like, barefoot.” The shtick-at-the-piano bar tone doesn’t stop. (Steven, like Company’s Joanne, orders a vodka stinger.)
That’s a little bit odd, because, first, Carrie is dying, and, second, what we quickly learn that is Steven has seen Stephen’s phone, and Stephen has been sexting with Brian. The perfect gay family in The Ad is no longer so perfect, and the Steves end up sleeping in separate rooms. Then Steven hooks up with Esteban. And Trainer Steve moves in with Matt and Brian, too — a cozy, gymgoing throuple
Despite all that drama, it’s nearly impossible to become emotionally invested in any of it, because the tone remains so consistently light. It’s a musicals-loving gay teenager’s fantasy of how actual, adult gay men speak and interact. The cast is strong, especially Gets and McGrath as Stephen and Steven, but the script is so superficial, that there’s not much they can do with their characters.
In the end, at a memorial service for Carrie on Fire Island — “and I am telling you I have never seen ‘And I Am Telling You’ performed as a trio,” Steven says to Stephen, admiringly and inevitably — that couple reconnect. Matt and Brian remain besotted and horny. And even Trainer Steve and Esteban have found one another. Steve remains, death notwithstanding, a rollicking good time, as the lights come down on Steven and Stephen holding hands.
Then cast returns, to do their bows to The Sound of Music’s “So Long, Farewell.” With full choreography, of course. B-