“Steve” is the second Off Broadway play this month to explore the vagaries of modern gay relationships. Both have scenes set in New York City restaurants and the Fire Island Pines; both feature gay dads wrestling with friendships and fidelity. But if the first play, “Dada Woof Papa Hot,” is an earnest drama tinged with comedy, then “Steve” is primarily a comedy with somber touches of drama.
And what a rowdy comedy it is. Courtesy of the New Group, “Steve” is written by newcomer Mark Gerrard and helmed by none other than Cynthia Nixon. Who knew this former “Sex and the City” actor, known for taking on no-nonsense roles, had such a way with the funny bone?
The glee begins as you take your seats. The ensemble is already onstage singing bouncy standards around an upright piano, expertly played by Malcolm Gets (“Amour,” “Hello Again”), which sets the tone for the evening. While no one would mistake “Steve” for a musical, the piece is inflected with peppy bursts of song.
Another shrewd appraisal of the pleasures and perils of same-sex domesticity
The overarching joke is that the names of the gay-dad couple are Steven (Matt McGrath) and Stephen (Gets). The sexy Latino waiter (Francisco Pryor Garat), who somehow turns up at several eateries in the play, is named Esteban. Oh I almost forgot, there’s also “Trainer Steve” who never actually appears onstage, yet he’s an object of obsession. Apparently he is young, gorgeous, musically gifted, and has a giant uncut penis.
The action begins with a group of friends assembled at a fancy restaurant in honor of Steven’s 47th birthday (he claims he’s only 43). The celebration, however, is doomed from the start. Steven’s closest friend Carrie (Ashlie Atkinson), who wears a scarf around her head, talks about dying (she has an aggressive form of cancer) and her recent breakup with her girlfriend.
Another couple, Matt (Mario Cantone) and Brian (Jerry Dixon, who happens to be Cantone’s husband) arrive late, perhaps detained after having a three-way with Trainer Steve. Steven is on edge, and we’ve already figured out why before the others — he inadvertently saw racy text messages on Stephen’s smartphone. Within minutes, Steven has a colossal meltdown — or does he? The scene is just one of several astonishing fantasy curveballs the play throws at us during its brisk 90 minutes.
Throughout the proceedings, more conflicts arise, bonds are tested, and hearts are broken.
The nimble cast does a wonderful job of delivering the razor-sharp, rapid-fire, often overlapping dialogue, though sometimes it’s their thumbs that do the talking. “Steve” is the first show I’ve seen to use dialogue via text messages (and sext messages), projected on a backdrop. And it’s done well.
While the cast is solid across the board, it’s McGrath, fresh from his brilliant turn as an aging drag queen in “The Legend of Georgia McBride,” who locates unexpected layers of heartache and hope in his character, Steven. Especially moving is his heart-to-heart chat with Carrie, where he laments his unnerving ability to turn “Just Enough” into “Not Quite Enough.”
Also impressive is the perfectly cast Cantone, who injects a giddy, go-for-broke abandon to Matt’s silly antics.
Though not required, it certainly helps if you’re a theater geek — the script is generously sprinkled with references to shows like “West Side Story,” “Into the Woods,” “Evita,” “Mame,” and “The Music Man,” to name just a few. There’s a passing mention of “blue roses” that only fans of “The Glass Menagerie” could appreciate. I’m embarrassed to admit I had to look up “Drink your juice, Shelby” to learn it was from “Steel Magnolias.” When Steve ordered a Vodka Stinger, I smiled in recognition.
As it happens, there’s good reason for the tuneful shenanigans. Steven, Carrie, and Matt were once aspiring musical theater performers, crooning show tunes and slinging hash at a diner suspiciously like Ellen’s Stardust on Broadway. Like so many actor-waiters before them, their show careers went nowhere. Steven bitterly refers to himself as a “failed chorus boy.”
Sure, you might appraise “Steve” as being little more than a sitcom. But with such brilliant, laugh-out-loud TV shows these days like “Modern Family” or “The Big Bang Theory,” that can be quite a compliment.
STEVE | The New Group | The Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre, Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 W. 42nd St. | Through Jan. 3: Tue.-Fri. at 7:30 p.m.; Sat. at 8 p.m.; Wed., Sat.-Sun. at 2 p.m. | $25-$95 at thenewgroup.org | Ninety mins.; no intermission