“Steve” at the New Group at the Pershing Square Signature Center (Closed Sunday December 27, 2015)

Written by Mark Gerrard
Directed by Cynthia Nixon
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited

“Into each life some rain must fall/But too much is falling in mine/Into each heart some tears must fall/
But some day the sun will shine.” (Ella Fitzgerald and the Ink Spots) “But into every life a little rain must fall.” (Queen)

That unwelcome “rain” falls unexpectedly into the lives of the characters of Mark Gerrard’s scintillating new play in the person of one of the characters named Steve. “Steve” is also the title of the play currently running at The New Group at the Pershing Square Signature Center in New York City. Steve – though never seen on stage – is the catalyst that fractures the fragile extended family that has gathered to celebrate stay-at-home dad Steven’s (Matt McGrath) birthday. Steven is joined at the celebration by his partner Stephen (Malcolm Gets), their partnered friends Matt (Mario Cantone) and Brian (Jerry Dixon) and their longtime friend Carrie (Ashlie Atkinson).

Steven has arrived at his birthday celebration after seeing his (and Stephen’s) son Zack out the door to school and retrieving Stephen’s cell phone which had been “stolen” by Zack. The purloined cell phone is the key that unlocks the Pandora’s Box that – along with the aforementioned Steve – wreaks havoc on the lives of these star-crossed friends. In a scene that “repeats” itself (one “imagined” one “actual”), Steven sees a series of text messages that reveal Stephen might be having an affair with Brian. Director Cynthia Nixon juxtaposes these scenes in a mind-stretching montage that sets the stage for future scenes that transcend space and time and reveal the inner (and outer) thoughts of the characters.

Under Cynthia Nixon’s astute and meticulous direction, the ensemble cast of “Steve” explores with remarkable distinction and dignity the vicissitudes in the lives of an extended family dealing with dysfunction, death and dying, disappointment, the fragility of relationships and trust, and the possibility of transcending brokenness and betrayal. Mario Cantone (Matt) and Jerry Dixon (Brian) deliver authentic performances as a couple in search of something to re-boot their relationship and decide to invite trainer Steve to move in. Malcolm Gets (Stephen) and Matt McGrath (Steven) deliver profoundly moving performances of two men who have lived in a committed relationship, adopted a child, and have attempted to live the “American Dream” with dignity and panache. This relationship is shattered by Stephen’s apparent “cheating” with Brian and calls into question the wisdom of patterning a gay “marriage” after straight models.

Ashlie Atkinson stands out with her portrayal of Carrie. Carrie has been abandoned by her Crocs-wearing lover Lisa and is dying of cancer – despite Steven’s massive denial – and is the catalyst for the reconciliation between Stephen and Steven. And Francisco Pryor Garat’s Esteban successfully morphs from waiter to Steven’s sexual interest and the entire group’s virtual boy-toy. Both Carrie and Esteban are profound metaphors for stability and honesty and provide comedic relief throughout the action of the play. It is the ability of the cast to move between comedy and tragedy that is one of the factors that contributes to the play’s success. The cast holds the emotional balance of the audience in its collective hand and holds no prisoners in its efforts to provide a paradigm for understanding the importance of unconditional and non-judgmental love.

Director Cynthia Nixon successfully teases every nuance out of playwright Mark Gerrard’s script. Her direction of Malcolm Gets’s (Stephen) scene during which he is juggling a phone conversation with his mother and his mother-in-law and sending and receiving texts from Brian, Carrie, and Steven is impeccable. Allen Moyer’s inventive set design allows the audience to see the exchange of text messages in what proves to be one of the most inventive devices in an Off-Broadway or Broadway play.

Because the five are theatre friends, their delicious banter is replete with obvious and not-so-obvious references to all things theatre and their repartee is an added bonus to the face-paced action of the play. The entire cast comes on stage fifteen minutes prior to curtain and performs a medley of “friendship” songs which not only serve to preview the cohesiveness of the cast but also provides important hints about each character. Unfortunately, the audience this critic experienced had more interest in their own conversations than showing respect to one of the most talented casts currently on stage in New York City.

“Steve” is a must see and is a play one could see and appreciate more than once. Mr. Gerrard’s play raises important questions that are enduring and rich in nature and deserve to be “answered” by everyone interested in significant and rewarding relationships. “Steve” is an important new play that portrays gay characters in a new way. In fact, the audience ultimately forgets the constraints of gender and sexual status and celebrates human characters that are real – warts and all.