The Things I Could Never Tell Steven at PrideArts Credit: Marisa KM

After a year-and-a-half shutdown, the storefront theater formerly known as Pride Films and Plays is back open for business in Buena Park. Returning to live performance, the LGBT-focused company now called PrideArts has not only a new name but a new artistic director, a reconfigured black-box space with new seats and upgraded air-conditioning, and a new COVID-conscious attendance policy—masks and proof of vaccination are required at the box office, where they also take your temperature. And, while not a new work, the opening production of its 2021-22 season is a U.S. premiere: The Things I Could Never Tell Steven, by Australian musical-theater writer Jye Bryant. Premiered in 2015 at the King Street Theatre in Sydney, the 85-minute one-act has also been seen in the United Kingdom and Ireland. But under the direction of PrideArts’s new artistic director, Jay Españo, this is its debut in front of American audiences.

This modest, intelligent, quirky little chamber piece is a dramatic song cycle for four people who share their experiences with, and their feelings for, the title character. If these four “could never tell Steven” what they tell us in their sung (and occasionally spoken) monologues, that’s largely because Steven himself never seems to be around. Certainly the audience never sees him, except as a faceless image in projected videos.

Who is Steven? We know very little about him. He has a job, but we are never told what it is. He comes from an upscale, privileged white family, at least as Españo has cast the show here. But most of what we know about him is what the others tell us about him—which, of course, is really a projection of their own perceptions of their roles in Steven’s life. To his parents he’s a devoted son; to the young woman he’s just married, he’s a tender husband, “the one for me”; and to his on-off-on-again boyfriend, he’s a hot top in bed. He’s charming, thoughtful, generous, and attractive; someone whom other people want to protect. He’s also distant and dishonest. He communicates by handwritten notes and guarded text messages, but he never, ever answers the phone.

On the other hand, at least Steven has a name, which is something composer-librettist Bryant has declined to give the quartet of singers. They are identified as, simply, Mother (Kyra Leigh), Father (Carl Herzog), Wife (Elissa Newcorn), and The Ex (Nate Hall). As each in turn sings their variation on the enigma who defines their life,​ the audience comes to understand that Steven is, or seems to be, whoever other people want him to be—until that fragile, false identity becomes unsustainable over the course of a pivotal year in everyone’s life.

Steven, in fact, is a closeted bisexual living a very compartmentalized existence. His lovestruck bride, a freshly minted college graduate, hasn’t a clue that Steven might be cheating on her. And—SPOILER ALERT—she never finds out. Nor do Steven’s parents ever learn the truth about their son’s secret sexuality. This, to me, is the biggest weakness of this show, especially in the hands of an LGBT-identified theater: as a musical dramatist, Bryant ducks the challenge of exploring how, for example, the Wife would react if she finally realized that the problem with her marriage is Steven’s sexual confusion, and that separation might be the best thing for them both. And there’s not a word about Steven’s own presumably rocky road to self-understanding.

The Things I Could Never Tell Steven
Through 9/19: Thu-Sat 7:30 PM, Sun 3 PM, also Wed 9/1, 7:30 PM, PrideArts Center, 4139 N. Broadway,, $30

Musically, The Things I Could Never Tell Steven is clearly influenced by the work of William Finn—whose Falsettos explores in much greater depth the complexities of a bisexual’s marital dilemma—and by Stephen Sondheim’s Company, whose title song, with its jittery rhythms and contrapuntal vocal lines, is echoed in Bryant’s opening number “Then You’d Know” and even directly quoted in the midpoint chorale “Steven’s Birthday.” In this number Steven’s parents, wife, and boyfriend sing of their loved one’s anticipated arrival at the conflicting birthday parties they are planning for him. (The joke here is that Sondheim’s Company is also set on the occasion of its protagonist’s birthday bash—but he never shows up.)

Under the skillful musical direction of onstage pianist Robert Ollis, the four cast members deftly handle the complexities of Bryant’s sophisticated score. Newcorn as the Wife delivers the evening’s knockout punch in “I Still Have Me,” a powerful ballad of anger and loss. Leigh as Mother and Hall as The Ex negotiate a tricky, and sometimes blurry, line between emotional sincerity and broad comic stereotypes. Leigh’s domineering drunken mother could have come out of a 1950s book on homosexual Oedipal fixation, and did Hall really need to use a banana to demonstrate his fondness for fellatio? As Steven’s well-meaning but walled-up dad, Herzog touchingly renders “Three Small Words,” a gentle reflection on how masculine emotional aloofness is handed down from fathers to sons generation after generation; this is a song I would recommend to any man looking for unfamiliar material for auditions or a cabaret set.

The bi-level set by Foiles—divided into four playing areas, one for each of the singers—is sharply lit by Kentrell (Trey) Brazeal; the costumes are by Isaac Jay Pineda. And assistant director Jordan Ratliff is credited with creating the media design, with its haunting, fleeting, faceless images of the mysterious, mixed-up Steven.