I just had one of the most extraordinary theater experiences I’ve had in a while. Who knew the second production of The Bent, which focuses on LGBTQ+ theater, was going to be such a knockout?
Martin Sherman’s Gently Down the Stream is a wordy one-act with 12 “scenes” that take place between 2001 and 2014. Sherman has been nominated for two Tony Awards—for Bent and The Boy From Oz—while Gently Down the Stream was performed off-Broadway in 2017.
On opening night at the Palm Springs Cultural Center, the theater was packed—and overwhelmingly male, which is no surprise, given the play touches on recent gay history.
The whole play takes place in the flat of Beau, an older American cocktail pianist now living in London. Beau fled from New Orleans when he was 21; he has visited or lived in places all over the world since. Actor Terry Ray gradually unveils Beau’s fascinating history.
The other main character is Rufus, played by Daniel Bateman. Beau expected Rufus, a 29-year-old lawyer with mood swings, to be a one-night stand, but their relationship becomes much more. (Beau comments, “When I was young everyone was alcoholic. Now they’re just bipolar!”)
The age difference—Beau is 62 to Rufus’ 29—affects their philosophies on life. Beau looks back with a lot of pain, often drinking to cover the hurt; he delivers several thoughtful monologues about his partners, his father, his life. The show begins with Beau just learning to use the internet, he doesn’t really understand it, though it was how they met. Rufus wants to learn about Beau’s past, especially his time being the accompanying pianist for Mabel Mercer, known for her “melancholy and sophisticated” songs that “exhilarated by the sadness.”
The play continues through Beau’s spellbinding monologues, in which he goes back to World War II, the AIDS crisis, his lovers and his losses. It’s rare to see an audience so silent and caught up in a character’s history, and it was impossible to find a flaw in Ray’s delivery. Usually the memorization of such long and complicated speeches is a wearying experience for both actor and audience, but in this show, it is edge-of-the-seat fascinating. The audience is in the palm of his hand for the entire show.
Beau uses a drawly New Orleans accent, while Rufus doesn’t have much of a discernable accent, even though he’s presumably a Londoner. Rufus and Beau exchange perfectly timed conversations which carry the whole play through revelations about their philosophies and their growth. It is endlessly interesting.
Director Steve Rosenbaum is also an actor, which helps explain the depth of his success. And he is a director with much experience, so that explains his quality work with his actors. He took to the stage to start the evening and welcome us to Martin Sherman’s newest play.
Oh, yes, there is a third actor: Justin Ledesma plays Harry in only the last couple of scenes, but his performance provides a striking contrast to the other two. When he arrives, he brightens the stage with his energy and his presence.
The last time we see Beau, he is 74 years old—and very different from when we first met him. Beau’s last monologue, spoken with simplicity and spontaneity, is something you won’t soon forget.
Where does the name, Gently Down the Stream, come in to all this? It’s a phrase we all know from the little song that we learned way back when. I will leave that question unanswered, because I want you to be surprised when you learn the answer … and you will be. Oh, and don’t be afraid of the “brief nudity,” because there is nothing involved that could offend anyone.
The best thing you can do is visit the company website (TheBent.org), where you can find out about the encore presentation of The Bent’s first show, The Lincoln Debate—written by Terry Ray—as well as get on their mailing list, and maybe even make a donation. Actually, the best thing you can do is go see this play, because it is an astonishing theatrical experience. It is my favorite play of the season so far—and it might be yours, too.
The Bent’s production of Gently Down the Stream will be performed on Saturday, Feb. 18; Friday through Sunday, Feb. 24-26; and Thursday through Saturday, March 2-4, at the Palm Springs Cultural Center, 2300 E. Baristo Road, in Palm Springs. All shows are at 7 p.m., except for the Feb. 26 show, which is at 2 p.m. Tickets are $35. For tickets or more information, visit thebent.org.