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‘Gently Down the Stream’ review: Harvey Fierstein returns to drama

Gabriel Ebert, left, and Harvey Fierstein in

Gabriel Ebert, left, and Harvey Fierstein in "Gently Down the Stream" at the Public Theater. Credit: Joan Marcus

WHAT “Gently Down the Stream”

WHERE Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St.

INFO $85; 212-967-7555; publictheater.org

BOTTOM LINE Harvey Fierstein returns to drama with a sentimental and schematic but enjoyable gay-history romance.

We have learned many things about Harvey Fierstein since his breakout 1983 Tony-winning “Torch Song Trilogy” inspired him to declare himself the first “real-life, out-of-the-closet queer on Broadway.”

We learned that his Beelzebub-out-of-Brooklyn croak really is his voice. We learned he can convince, and earn a Tony, as Edna Turnblad in “Hairspray.” We’ve admired his Tony-winning book for “La Cage aux Folles” and his book for the Tony-winning “Kinky Boots,” and were knocked out by his last underappreciated play, “Casa Valentina.”

Amid all the writing, the star turns on TV and in movies and his unlikely Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof,” however, it has become too easy to forget what a fine dramatic actor he is while, somehow, still being his singular self.

Taking a break from writing and/or starring in musicals, Fierstein returns to remind us of that in “Gently Down the Stream,” a romantic comedy with a gay history backdrop. The 100-minute premiere is written by Martin Sherman, whose 1979 “Bent” taught the mainstream about gay extermination by the Nazis, and is directed with a light touch for melodrama by Sean Mathias.

The new play is less that sort of shocker than a sentimental and straightforward but enjoyable and — dare we say it? — useful overview of the radical changes in gay life from the mid-20th century to today.

Fierstein, 62, plays Beau, born in New Orleans and also 62. He’s a cocktail pianist and American expat living in a handsomely eccentric London flat (designed by Derek McLane). It is 2001, the night of an anonymous sex date made over the newfangled internet with Rufus, a lanky, good-looking, 28-year-old lawyer. Beau expects the liaison to be over, but Rufus — played with endearing, high-energy sensitivity by Gabriel Ebert — adores Beau, knows all about his illustrious career as a cabaret accompanist and is eager to know all his stories.

Despite Beau’s realistic skepticism and his own painful history, Rufus moves in and, with charming insistence, begins to tape Beau’s memories. This means Beau can sit on a high wooden chair and, reluctantly at first, tell the next generation about the fleeting joys and mostly agonies of forbidden love in a recent world where gay marriage and parenthood seemed forever out of reach.

Fierstein finesses the New Orleans accent (sort of) because (news to me) Rufus says it’s supposed to be a combination of Southern and Brooklyn. Fierstein is an original, a star presence who manages to be instantly identifiable while convincing us he’s someone we never met before. How delightful to see him here as a lust object pursued in a romance.

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