Steve is a satisfyingly genial comedy that brings up, but then darts quickly away from, serious issues.
Steve by Mark Gerrard. Directed by David J. Miller. Set design by Miller. Staged by the Zeitgeist Stage Company at the Plaza Black Box Theatre at the Boston Center for the Arts, Boston, MA, through March 24.
By Bill Marx
What is the matter with Steven? Not with his long-time lover Stephen, but Steven? The guy, who just turned 42, seems to be suffering a beaut of a mid-life crisis, with both sex and death (predictably) the major culprits. He hasn’t been getting much romantic satisfaction from Stephen, a successful lawyer, and his lesbian best friend, Carrie, is dying from cancer, a reality that Steven can’t bear to accept. He shifts from unhappiness to hysteria after he discovers that Stephen has been sexting with Brian, the partner of his long–time best friend Matt, and that Zack, the couple’s adopted kid, is showing an alarming number of behavioral problems. He fears aging: not only does it feel as if time is running out, particularly for someone who has not fashioned a career, but panic that opportunities have been wasted. Life is not going to supply a satisfying second act.
Alas, Steven is not a man confronting his own superficiality, which would make for more compelling theater. What ails him isn’t all that debilitating — more of a case of sit-com malaise, frazzled upset for the sake of ginning up laughs.
Steve is not a gay-centered Chekhovian (or Ayckbourn-ian) study in New York hedonism run farcically aground. Playwright Mark Gerrard has too facile a sense of humor for that: the script doesn’t deal with disturbing matters for long. The dramatist’s strategy is to crank out a joke during situations dark or light — all of his characters refer to Broadway musicals or movies (based on Broadway shows) at the drop of an anxiety. The showbiz humor and contemporary celebrity references — from Tammy Grimes to Jennifer Lawrence — are amusing, if a bit repetitious. It also serves as a convenient crutch — this is a satisfyingly genial comedy that brings up, but then darts quickly away from, serious issues, taking safe refuge in one-liners about what kind of a God would have permitted the blasphemous movie version of Mame.
Steven is surrounded by lively figures who flirt with caricature, from the supposedly substantial figure of Carrie who, at least to me, seems to exist to give him advice. Her condition should serve as more than a pick-me-up life lesson for Steven. Friends Matt and Brian are also fending off impending age (and bedroom boredom), but they are not driven to distraction. They invite into their home a physical trainer, named Steve (not seen), who is juicing up their love lives. The latter characters, along with the young Esteban, who pops up working various jobs (as a waiter, mostly), are lively but cartoonish, rarely suggesting that there is anything to them beyond their punch lines. Stephen is particularly undernourished as a character: his final scene with Steven invites some sort of confrontation or confession, a tragicomic articulation of concern, hope, wariness, and anger at how his partner has been acting so selfishly. Instead, we are given a man clinging to a poker face.
Still, there is enough playful mirth here to make Steve an enjoyable slice of light entertainment, particularly given the spirited Zeitgeist Stage Company production. David J. Miller directs with an acute sense of pacing, though the first scene comes off as far too frenzied for my taste — the patter flies by at supersonic speed. Steven’s growing despair at what he has learned is lost amid all the campy witticisms whizzing by. Once the production slows down, the emotional undertones are given a chance to register.
As Steven, Victor Shopov supplies an intense performance, one that is somewhat out-of-step with the relaxed manner of his fellow cast members. His character is tense and driven, at times harshly defensive. His dismay seems a bit too real for the lite circumstances — which makes the insta wrap-up even more problematic than it already is. Jenny Reagan’s Carrie is warmly empathetic, but she doesn’t manage to suggest what makes the figure so deeply beloved by Steven. The other performers have a good time nattering funnily about, from Mickey DiLoreto’s sagely silly Matt and Mike Nilsson’s childishly self-involved Brian to Adam Boiselle’s amiable Esteban.
So Steve supplies some chuckles about the vicissitudes of maturity and it doesn’t overstay its welcome. This is the kind of play that doesn’t end so much as stop dead in its tracks. It is as if the God who tolerated the movie version of Mame just turns the lights out, perhaps out of impatience. Your 90 minutes are up.
Bill Marx is the editor-in-chief of The Arts Fuse. For over three decades, he has written about arts and culture for print, broadcast, and online. He has regularly reviewed theater for National Public Radio Station WBUR and The Boston Globe. He created and edited WBUR Online Arts, a cultural webzine that in 2004 won an Online Journalism Award for Specialty Journalism. In 2007 he created The Arts Fuse, an online magazine dedicated to covering arts and culture in Boston and throughout New England.