In Steve, now playing off-Broadway, we see piano-bar people beyond the piano.
By Paul Hagen
As a whole, people spend a great deal of time exchanging small talk, pleasantries, chit-chat. For every subculture, there’s a version of this kind of conversation, which doesn’t exist to exchange information so much as to remind others that we’re still here and fill the otherwise deafening silence of the passage of time. For a certain, piano-bar-inhabiting corner of gay culture that conversation comes in the form of showtunes, and what is communicated by singing and re-singing of these gems of the musical theater ultimately has less to do with what’s being said in the lyrics of Mr. Hammerstein or Mr. Porter or Mr. Sondheim and more to do with establishing one’s place in the universe: a harmony cementing a friendship, a group number rallying spirits, a solo asserting one’s worth. As an enthusiastic piano bar habitué, I speak this language fluently.
It is only truly in the beginning of Steve that we get to see this kind of daily piano bar give-and-take. Well before curtain, one of the titular “Steves” (Malcolm Gets) is at the piano serving a medley of showtunes that would sound schizophrenic if it were not exactly what you get at a piano bar — moving from Showboat’s “Can’t Help Loving ‘Dat Man” to Fiddler on the Roof’s “Sunrise/Sunset” to A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum’s “Comedy Tonight” as though it were the most natural progression in the world. Soon he’s joined by a Carrie (Ashlie Atkinson), who gamely laughs at the pianist’s song choices, sings half a line here and there, dreamily watches his fingers move over the the keys. Next comes Matt (Mario Cantone – adding Liza-level pizazz) and another Steve (Matt McGrath), and as their full-on singing begins, the relationships become clear. “Together Wherever We Go” from Gypsy shows us that theirs is a friendship that’s lasted long enough to have the cues and twisty lyrics down. “Bosom Buddies” lets us know they’re the kind of friends close enough to also tear each other apart. And “All That Jazz” lets us know who among the crew will jump at any chance to steal the spotlight.
But this is the last time we’ll see our characters gathered around the piano, as the rest of “Steve” trades everyday life at the piano for those bigger, once-in-a-lifetime occasions: the betrayals, the risk-taking, the last chances, the goodbyes. One couple, Steven and Stephen, are dealing with parenting’s cooling effect on their long-term passions. Another couple, Matt and Brian (Jerry Dixon) are experimenting with new ways to expand their own passionate horizons. And all are reckoning with the fact that Carrie has advanced cancer and was recently left by her girlfriend.
Just as the smartphones transformed the piano bar scene – with Google offering definitive solutions to Broadway trivia debates and forgotten song lyrics; so, too, do they feature centrally in the action of Steve — leaving clues about characters’ hidden desires and facilitating clandestine flirting. Director Cynthia Nixon handles this interaction deftly — with projected texts perkily popping up on the walls behind the characters as the actors stare eagerly at their phones. There’s even a scene late in the play in which Stephen juggles talking to his mother and mother-in-law on a land line while sending urgent texts with his partner Steven (who’s gone missing) and Carrie (looking after their son Zac) — all the while receiving some incredibly spicy sexts from a fifth party — that feels so breathtakingly like the climax of a French farce, it’s hard to believe there’s only one person on stage for most of it.
Though we don’t see the characters physically gathered around the piano again after the opening, the rest of the show is suffused with showtune culture — from transitions featuring the cast performing snippets of shows including “Peter Pan” and “Rent” to playwright Mark Gerrard’s banter-iffic dialogue, which is positively suffused with quotes from and references to at least 25 works of musical theater (the actual count is probably much higher) which can acrobatically twist from “Bye, Bye, Birdie” to “Sunday in the Park with George” to “ Wicked” in one line of dialogue.
There is familiarity in some of the questions being asked here: What happens to performing artists when they stop performing? What do long-term couples do when their sex life wanes? How do modern people weigh their obligations to blood relatives versus friend-families versus partners? But they are being asked in fresh and specific ways, and the show does a particularly nice job of exposing the hypocrisy of gay people in sexless heteronormative pairings who judge people exploring less traditional sexual relationships.
An essential challenge in creating characters whose behavior tends toward the over-the-top (such as the show-people in evidence here) is how to pitch the actors’ performances such that they are as gloriously camp and mannered as their real world counterparts while also not ending up as unwatchably shrill stereotypes. For all its Sondheim-quoting outbursts and rapid-fire banter, Steve errs on the side of restraint. There’s a case to be made that this better allows audiences to connect to the story’s more emotional points; however I would say that its most unrepentantly queeny moments are some of its best.
Steve is exceedingly quotable, despite the fact that it’s often quite busy quoting other shows — including gems like “You quote Sondheim like a man,” and “What kind of God would allow the movie version of Mame to exist?” But one line, in particular, stood out as a summary of the play’s message as a whole. In the course of discussing the fact that life is “a lot of time to fill,” Steven remarks: “Isn’t it a waste to fill it with silence?” Indeed, this lovely play makes the point that life will inevitably bring us all our share of temptations, troubles, responsibilities and goodbyes — but the best way to fill the quiet moments in between may be with a few well-chosen showtunes.
Steve is a new play by Mark Gerrard and directed by Cynthia Nixon. The cast includes Ashlie Atkinson, Mario Cantone, Jerry Dixon, Francisco Pryor Garat, Malcolm Gets and Matt McGrath. This production by The New Group plays at The Pershing Square Signature Center, and although it has been extended, it must close January 3, 2016. Get tickets and more information at thenewgroup.org/steve.
Last modified: July 27, 2017