Monday, July 9, 2012

Theatre Droppings: The Night Larry Kramer Reminded Me

Last week, I saw Arena Stage's production of The Normal Heart. It brought back many memories of a particular time in my life, and of a particular production in grad school.
Brad Davis starred in the original Off-Broadway production. He went on to Midnight Express, Sybil, and a notorious performance in the French film Querelle. He was one of a number of Normal Heart's original players to die of AIDS.
As everybody knows, or ought to, The Normal Heart was written by that mouthy firebrand Larry Kramer when the AIDS epidemic was roaring to life in 1985.  It concerns the early days of the disease, and the group of men (and one female doctor) who were fighting to bring this puzzling killer to the attention of the public. 
This Arena Stage production is billed as the first stop of a national tour. But future dates have yet to announced. Such an incendiary piece is tough to book for the road.
I loved the Arena production, which is peopled with many of the same actors who performed the recent Broadway revival which won the Tony. 
Patrick Breen has been one of my
favorites for years. He's leading a
great cast at Arena.
Some of the local critics complained that the text is preachy and didactic, but I did not find it so.  I found the show to be scarily prophetic and darkly humorous, winningly played by a dynamite cast.  The "speechifying" which some critics disliked was dynamically delivered, and I wept with frustration and sorrow through much of the show.
Panels from the AIDS quilt are on display in the lobby of Arena Stage during the run of The Normal Heart. Large portions of the quilt are currently on the National Mall and other DC venues, to coincide with the International AIDS conference to be held in DC this month. The full quilt can no longer be displayed in one place, as it measures 50 square miles and weighs 54 tons.
The Normal Heart has itself been on my radar for many years, though I had never seen a production of it, nor even read the full script. 
Patricia Wettig won Emmys for
thirtysomething, and is pretty
ferocious in the role which won
Ellen Barkin the Tony.

This is shameful on my part, as the play is one of the monuments of modern theatre, and I own a prestigious copy of it.  Years ago, a dear friend sent me a fantastic birthday gift: an autographed copy of the play's original working script, complete with edits pencilled into the margins by the one of the original cast members.  She bought the item at auction, just for me.  She knew I would treasure it, as The Normal Heart played a big part in one of the most significant periods in my own life.
Joe Montello, on the left, returned to acting to play the lead role in the recent Broadway revival. I saw him in the original Angels in America, before he became a respected director. (He turned the critically dismissed Wicked into the smash of the decade.)
In 1993, I left Los Angeles, where I had been living for almost 20 years, for the east coast, to attend grad school in South Carolina.  Before the big move, I drove into Hollywood to see David Drake perform his self-written one-man play, The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me
David Drake won the Obie.

It was all about coming of age as a young gay man during the late 70s and early 80s, a time of discos, gym bunnies, sexual freedom, and, tragically, the outbreak of AIDS.  I was greatly moved by Drake's play.  I arrived at the University of South Carolina, wondering if there would ever be a time in my life that I could attempt such a feat, to appear alone onstage for 90 minutes, performing such a provocative yet deeply personal piece.

I was kept exceptionally busy during grad school (I appeared in 11 shows during the two years I was on campus), but by chance, there was a break in my performance year, in the early spring of 1995.  At one of the periodic meetings I had with my advisory committee, I was asked what I wanted to accomplish during my second year of study.  Almost off-handedly, I mentioned that I would love to attempt to perform the solo role in The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me.  Immediately, the chair of my committee, Jim Patterson, asked, "Oh, may I direct you in it?"

This reaction took the idea out of the realm of dreamy "what-ifs" and into the arena of "What the hell have I gotten myself into?" 
Jim ran the MFA directing program on campus, and was an admired director in the professional theatres in the region as well. 
Patterson directed me as Algernon in ...Earnest,
in a production which transferred to
Charlotte Rep for a professional run.

He had already directed me in The Importance of Being Earnest and Anything Goes, and we had developed a good working relationship. Still, the fact that a man of his reputation was eager to direct a student-generated production was pretty big news.  (Jim had seen the same production of The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me that I had, in New York,  before it transferred to L.A..)
A promo shot of our ...Larry Kramer...

The play was a series of monologues, taking a gay man from early childhood (and his fascination with Barbie and the Village People) into his life as an out-and-proud gay artist.  It was really David Drake's own story, but it spoke to many of us, as it gave a very personal look at the obstacles, defeats, and victories a lot of us endured.  Some of the monologues were hysterically funny, some deeply tragic (in particular, when the AIDS crisis hit Drake's life in New York).  There were only a few really dark moments in the piece, and all of those dealt with AIDS. 
Drake lit a candle as he told the story of each of his
friends who were dying of AIDS. In rehearsal, I was
thinking of my high school buddy Matthew, my college
chum Gordon, my favorite bartender Justin, and the first
openly gay man I ever knew, my high school
 music teacher, Mr. Hill.

Drake told the story of several of his tribe who were taken by the disease, and how he coped with the mounting losses in his life.  In rehearsal, I was to find these scenes particularly moving to play, and I was often thinking of those in my own life I had lost.  This play was to be the most challenging piece of theatre I have ever tackled. 

In addition, I was to be challenged in another way: physically.  The narrator of the story is extremely well-built, and extremely sexual, and I was neither. 
Two sequences in particular were the most frightening to me.  In one, I was to move through a full gym workout, and in the other, I was to cruise a leather bar.  Oh, and in the bar, I was to be shirtless, and in the gym, I was to strip to a jock-strap.  Sounds just like me, doesn't it?  I was terrified of these two sequences.
David Drake worked his exhibitionism into "12-inch Single," the sequence taking place in the leather bar. There was no way to fully realize his play without the overt sexuality.
Director Jim and I agreed that I could not realistically portray this guy unless I put on some muscle, so, about 10 weeks before we opened, I started a diet and hit the gym.  These were two things I had never done before;  I enlisted my grad school cohort Elliot, who was a gym bunny at the time, to teach me how to work out effectively. 
Elliot nearly killed me in the gym.

Our first day in the weight room, he instructed me on the correct usages of all the equipment.  The next day, I could barely move, and the day after that, I though Elliot had tried to kill me.  His coaching was extreme but effective, and I hit the gym on campus at least 5 days a week.  In addition, I took all the fat out of my diet (that was the latest diet fad at the time) and of course, knocked off the booze.  Because I was so busy at school, I didn't have much trouble keeping to the new routine of eating and working out: I had no time to be hungry or sore. 

Several weeks went by, and I tried not to freak out about the fact that I did not seem to be losing much weight; I was told that as fat was reducing, I was gaining muscle, which is just as heavy.  But when you examine such things closely every day, you really can't see much change.  About 5 weeks into my workout program, our movement class had a guest instructor, who was head of the dance program on campus.  She moved among the 8 of us during class, adjusting our stances and such.  Nonchalantly, as she moved my shoulders around, she asked, "You lift weights, don't you?"  I was stunned into silence.  Then I glanced in the mirrored walls which encased the dance studio.  Each and every one of my fellow students, all of whom were well aware that I was trying to get into shape for this upcoming show, had stopped in their tracks, and Elliot was beaming like a proud papa. 
Another promo shot. I regret we took
no production shots of the show.

The physical transformation worked, and at age 38, I was in the best shape of my adult life.

The title of this piece, The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me, referenced a moment in David Drake's life in which he was forever changed.  He was not literally kissed by Larry Kramer, in fact, I don't believe he had even met him before writing his play.  But he was figuratively kissed by Kramer, the night he saw the original production of Kramer's play, The Normal Heart.  In turn, I have always felt that, during March and April of 1995, when I donned leather jacket and jockstrap to do The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me, I was kissed by David Drake, by doing his one-man play. 
Our success on campus lead to a professional run during Columbia's Gay Pride Celebration. All three theatre critics in the city sited our show among their Top-Ten Favorite Productions of the year.
Larry Kramer
This week, though, I can now claim I've been kissed by Larry Kramer, too, by seeing his groundbreaking The Normal Heart.