As Mark Gerrard’s new comedy Steve begins, Mario Cantone as Matt sings “Never Never Land” from Peter Pan. It’s a fitting way to begin a play about contemporary gay life in New York, which finds so many gay men caught between the warring poles of image-obsessed immaturity (“Peter Pan syndrome”) and the fairly new reality of gay family life.
For longtime partners Steven (a stay-at-home dad, played by Matt McGrath) and Stephen (a lawyer, played by Malcolm Gets), it’s that duality that drives a rift between them, tearing them apart despite their united front as parents. Their love life as a couple collides unexpectedly with that of their close friends Matt and Brian (Jerry Dixon) as the four of them simultaneously deal with the fact that their close friend Carrie (Ashlie Atkinson) – the glue that binds them together – is dealing with a very serious bout with cancer.
Humor and a healthy dose of musical theatre references get them through tough times – characters are constantly quoting showtunes – their quips occasionally assuming a harder edge as the outward comfort of their lives reveals its painful side. Steven and Stephen’s enduring love, it turns out, isn’t quite as pure as it once was, thanks to the temptations of the modern age, which has evolved immeasurably since their heyday – especially as concerns sexting, which plays a crucial role.
Directed by Cynthia Nixon, the New Group’s slick production moves fleetly and has its charms, especially its top-notch cast and the pleasure of basking in Gerrard’s crisp, realistic dialogue, which fizzes with an almost modern-Cowardian wit. Ashlie Atkinson as Carrie in particular gives a finely-tuned performance as the friend that holds together her group of cohorts and yet struggles to make the most of her own life, especially in the face of grave illness. Atkinson’s no-nonsense take on Carrie grounds a play that might otherwise drown in its own excesses, bogged down by perhaps too many musical theatre quotes and witty barbs.
The production also features the most effective use of on stage text messaging that I’ve seen to date and captures the midlife malaise of gay men in their forties with a tartly observant eye.
When it comes time to truly transcend its light touch and pack a punch dramatically, Steve feels a bit slight despite its charms. Steve lacks the dramatic heft to join the pantheon of “great gay plays” (or even great gay comedies), but Gerard shows promise as a writer working to capture the warmth and humor of gay life. His characters are pleasant company – even as they’re cutting into one another. That, it turns out, is enough to make for an enjoyable evening at the theatre, even if it’s not likely to change anyone’s life.