A Kiss is Still A Kiss
David Drake's Award-Winning Play Comes to the Screen -- and Its Creator Again Finds the Voice It Gave Him
David Drake is excited, to put it mildly. It's early April; he's calling from New York but preparing to go to London, where he'll see the filmed version of his award-winning one-man show, The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me, play for paying customers for the first time. He's told to cheer up. He laughs. "It's been such a long road, especially with an independent film," Drake says, then starts riffing on the cliché of indie filmmakers hustling scratch. "Can we hold a bake sale? How about a car wash?"
How about we put on a show in my uncle's barn? Drake's play, a portable 90-minute piece that can be performed in "any little black-box theater in the world," as Theatre Project director Bobby Mrozek puts it, has been staged just about everywhere since it opened at New York's Perry Street Theater in the summer of 1992. It's racked up more than 100 productions so far, in locales stretching from Nebraska to South America to Australia.
Written by the Harford County native as a series of monologues about being a gay man in the '90s, Larry Kramer is a blend of Drake's self-described "vaudeville instincts" (honed in local theater productions since he was 12) and his political passion (honed in the queer-politics maelstrom of New York in the late '80s and early '90s). It has stood time's test in a way few topical plays have, and while some of the details in its dialogue may scream "New York, 1990," its multiplicity of themes has helped the show stay relevant in ways that other queer-centric art of its era has not. Some parts of it may even be more timely now..
And on April 29, Larry Kramer comes home again: The film version will make its North American debut at the Maryland Film Festival, screening at the Charles Theatre -- mere blocks from Theatre Project, where it was shot in May 1999.
So Drake, who publicly vowed last year that the Theatre Project performances would be his last of the live show, has reason to cheer. The play that served first as his exorcism, then his calling card, and finally his albatross is now preserved for posterity, no longer dependent on its creator to keep its spirit alive. But Drake's return to LarryKramer also tells a different story -- and it is perhaps the real reason for his upbeat mood. That story is not about endings, but about new beginnings. It is, in a way, a coming-out story.
One night in the summer of 1985, Larry Kramer kissed David Drake. So to speak. And Drake never got over it.
Drake turned 22 that night, June 27. He was sitting in the audience at the New York Shakespeare Festival's Public Theatre, watching a production of The Normal Heart, Kramer's fiercely angry drama about the terrifying early days of the AIDS crisis. The Normal Heart captured a time when Kramer saw his friends dying of a mysterious disease that government, the medical establishment, the media, and to some extent gay men themselves steadfastly ignored. Kramer -- himself later revealed to be HIV+ -- co-founded the world's first AIDS organization, New York's Gay Men's Health Crisis, in 1981, and established himself as one of the loudest and most persistent AIDS activists. He also established himself as a willful critic of his fellow gay men and their sexual attitudes, which has gained him twin reputations in the gay community as both a courageous Paul Revere figure and a puritanical scold.
Today, The Normal Heart may seem more like a relentless polemic than a life-affirming theatrical experience. But when it debuted in April 1985, times were dark indeed for gay people, especially gay men. To live in New York then, with the AIDS epidemic rampaging unchecked, was to live in the middle of a war zone. Ed Koch sat in City Hall and did little; Ronald Reagan sat in the White House and did nothing. The world had not yet learned that Rock Hudson was dying of the disease. In 1985, 6,864 Americans succumbed to AIDS or its complications -- a tenth of the number who were killed by the disease at the epidemic's peak 10 years later -- and some mortuaries refused their bodies. In such an environment of fear and silence, The Normal Heart was a call to arms.
"Gay men speak in irony -- that's the language," says Drake, referring to much of the lighter gay-centric theater that predated AIDS (like La Cage aux Folles) or followed in the years after the first waves of loss (like Jeffrey). With the epidemic's emergence in the early 1980s, he says, "irony was out, suddenly. Larry Kramer was saying, 'This isn't funny, guys. Fags aren't funny.' "
When he saw Kramer's play, Drake had been in New York for a couple of years, having left Maryland for job opportunities and a freer social life. The only child of two public-school teachers, Drake grew up in Edgewood entranced by the footlights. He cut his teeth in such theatrical war-horses as Hello Dolly and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers at venues like the Spotlighters and the Towsontowne Dinner Theatre.
"When I met David, he was a big musical theater queen," says Baltimore-based fine-arts photographer Jose Villarrubia, Drake's friend for nearly 20 years. "He was very ambitious professionally, even as a child." At 20, after he'd put in years working professionally in Baltimore-area shows and taking a few classes at Essex Community College, Drake's ambitions took him to New York.
Seeing The Normal Heart a couple of years later, he says, was a cataclysmic event. In his own play's opening monologue, Drake expresses the feeling of pride, political awareness, and recognition of his own identity he got from Kramer's words -- the "kiss" of his show's title:
Public Theatre Playbill
twisting in my fist
Waiting for the others
who had also been kissed
Watching for the others
whose faces were bruised
to the Lullaby
That I've stood
In the years between seeing The Normal Heart and writing Kramer, Drake immersed himself in a new world in New York. He scrambled for gigs, and often took roles in gay-oriented productions. (His first big break was replacing Charles Busch in Busch's campy drag comedy Vampire Lesbians of Sodom.) He also began to check out the new breed of solo performers -- Spalding Gray, Eric Bogosian, Karen Finley. (Finley was one of the "NEA Four," performance artists whose federal funding was cut in 1990 after conservative lawmakers objected to their work's sexual content.)
"The energy was in their intellect, not in their performing abilities. They were into big ideas, epic ideas," Drake says of such performers. Traditional theater, by contrast, was beginning to seem "a little . . . shallow." Drake began to get excited about the idea of bringing "my need and craft to big ideas."
He says he was most impressed by the soloists ability to simply "get up and do it," without needing the help or permission of the theater establishment. There was a guerrilla quality to their work that dovetailed with his growing appetite for street politics. Like a lot of young gay men then living in New York, he became involved with political-action groups such as ACT-UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, which Kramer co-founded) and Queer Nation. Drake needed the outlet; as he writes in the introduction to the published version of Kramer, by 1990 "AIDS had taken the lives of several of my friends. I cried. I grieved. I went numb. . . . [O]f the number of people I counted in my circle of friends still living, the majority were HIV+. This wasn't going away. My numbness went flat. My helplessness hit bottom. My anger was born."
Villarrubia, ensconced in the more conservative world of graduate school in Baltimore -- a city that was slower to experience the epidemic's effects than New York -- says he was initially uncomfortable with his friend's transformation. But eventually, he says, his own work was influenced by a political climate that embraced the word "queer" and its implications, and by the daring homoerotic work of photographer Robert Mapplethorpe and others. "Suddenly, I wasn't just doing portraits any more," Villarrubia recalls. "Suddenly, David wasn't just doing musical theater."
What David was doing was writing. Writing, and trying to change the world.
"The first things he wrote were fine," Villarrubia says, "but he was looking for a voice. I encouraged him, but at the same time I was skeptical. I didn't know what he was trying to do." The breakthrough, he says, came when Drake came up with what would become Kramer's title piece, a memory of going to see The Normal Heart on his 22nd birthday. In the finished play, it culminates a "triptych" of birthday monologues, including one about falling in love with the stage after seeing West Side Story at a Baltimore County community theater at age 6 and another about having a first kiss after seeing A Chorus Line in Baltimore at age 16.
"I was blown away," Villarrubia says. From then on, the photographer became a sort of editor for Drake's monologues: "He would brainstorm with me all the time, which was very flattering." When a scene was written, the two men would pick through it, word by word.
The resulting pieces combined wit and drama, traditional showmanship, and Drake's growing political awareness. "Owed to the Village People" explores the power of pop-culture symbols, focusing on a bullied 8-year-old and his fervent, innocent affection for the "big and tough" disco group. ("Oh, but when I told Janis about them . . . she said, 'They're fairies!' She said her brother Brad told her so, and Brad would know -- Brad's in a band.") In "12-Inch Single," Drake plays a whole village of people, guys in a dance club trolling for sex and/or love. It's a pulsating, impressionistic scene that combines rap, personals-ad copy, and even the ironic use of a vintage show tune. "12-Inch Single" ends on a note of erotic violence that implies the ultimate danger of rough trade: The actor appears stripped to the waist, hurling epithets and dragging a knife across his chest.
He wrote feverishly through the first half of 1990, reporting on activity in his 'hood as authentically as any rapper from the outer boroughs wrote about gangbangers and 'round-the-way girls. That June, he attended Queer Nation's first "Take Back the Street" demonstration, in which more than 1,000 people marched past areas of Greenwich Village that had seen gay-bashing incidents; at various hot spots, marchers who'd been victims of violence there would stand up and tell their stories. The next day, Drake wrote Kramer's "Why I Go to the Gym," which linked gay men's workout obsession with their need to defend themselves from some of the very guys who shared their locker rooms.
"I used to joke to people, 'Oh, I go to the gym because I'm preparing for the revolution,'" Drake says. "I was responding [in 'Gym'] to the fear that makes us self-protect." He was also ahead of the curve in exploring the reasons behind many gay men's obsession with building the perfect body. Today, he says, "I see [gym culture] more as consumerism -- another thing we're told to buy."
The last piece he wrote for Kramer -- and, he says, the most difficult to write -- was "The Vigil." Renamed "A Thousand Points of Light" in the play's final version, the scene is simple in design: The actor stands on a stage dotted with candles, lighting each in turn and telling stories about departed friends. But "The Vigil" contains perhaps the play's most memorable material, some of its funniest, most tragic, most soulful. It was inspired by a piece in The New Republic by Andrew Sullivan, "Gay Life, Gay Death" -- specifically by Sullivan's description of gay men in the AIDS era as living in, as Drake puts it, "a medieval environment, an environment of loss."
"I realized I could take a plague and turn it into a myth," Drake says. The "Vigil" characters are composites of real people the playwright knew, he says, and are meant to represent the six classical archetypes discussed in the work of writer Joseph Campbell. The candlelit stage is meant to evoke a medieval church.
Drake performed "The Vigil" for the first time to an audience of one: Villarrubia. In the photographer's Baltimore apartment, Drake dimmed the lights, lit the candles, and told the stories of the lost boys. When it was over, Villarrubia says, "David asked, 'Do you love it?' " His friend said he did. "OK," Drake responded cheerfully, "Now tell me what's wrong with it." They began picking through the scene, word by word.
Many of the pieces that became The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me were written specifically for or first performed at AIDS benefits and gay events, some in Baltimore. "I got him gigs," Villarrubia says, recalling how "12-Inch Single" debuted at the 14Karat Cabaret in downtown's Maryland Art Place. Another piece was performed at the First and Franklin Street Presbyterian Church in Mount Vernon, as part of a double-bill with the lesbian comic Reno. (For that performance, Drake stood at the altar while Villarrubia crouched in front of him, shining a stage lamp on his face, giving the scene a kid-telling-a-ghost-story effect.) An early version of the show debuted at Towson State University's Coming Out Day celebration in the fall of 1990.
But while New York was sprouting edgy one-actor works like dandelions in those days, no one in Drake's circles seemed to know what to do with Kramer. Nor, at first, did Drake.
"I thought [the monologues were] going to be a side career, and I'd be doing my one-night guerrilla gigs, talking to gay youth," he says. Instead, he had an entire play on his hands, and no place to perform it.
He consulted producers. One suggested mounting Kramer in nightclubs, like a cabaret act; another saw it primarily as a showcase for Drake's acting talent and suggested renting a small performance space for a limited run. "People didn't see it as a play," Drake recalls. Plus, "the gay thing was very awkward then, still. Gays and politics are always tricky. Gays are supposed to be funny or tragic. But I was an angry young man. Oh, dear."
Finally, Drake found a producer who believed in Kramer -- except he wasn't a producer at all. Sean Strub was a political activist who had made his name as a highly successful direct-mail fund-raiser for AIDS and gay causes; he put together the first fund-raising solicitation for what is now the biggest U.S. gay-rights group, the Human Rights Campaign, in 1980. (His biggest coup was convincing playwright Tennessee Williams to sign a letter sent to potential donors. "Sean has a picture of himself sitting at Tennessee Williams' knee," Drake says. "Tennessee is reading the Bible.")
Drake met Strub through their mutual involvement with ACT-UP in New York; the actor also worked on Strub's unsuccessful congressional campaign in 1990.
"Sean had never thought of theater as an agent for change," Drake says, but the activist embraced Kramer as a piece of agitprop, hoping audiences would see the play "and then go out and change the world."
But first they had to have the chance to see it. The man who inspired Drake to write the play proved to be an inadvertent stumbling block for the star and his fledgling producer. "Some people wouldn't invest in the play because of Larry's name," Drake says. He and Strub briefly considered changing the title but ultimately felt it summed up the play best and stood their ground. (The controversial Kramer himself, Drake says, was initially "shy" about being so prominently name-checked, but "he's always nice to me. He embraces me when he sees me, and says, 'Oh, here's the man who made me famous.' ")
On June 22, 1992, The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me opened at the Perry Street Theater. The critics' reaction was generally kind. "[Drake's] limited content comes not from a failure of sensibility, but from a desire to make demarcations; obviously, this artist knows there's more to life than being kissed by Larry Kramer," Village Voice critic Michael Feingold wrote. "Rather than using his big theme as an excuse to talk about himself, in the word-drooling manner of many minor solo performers, Drake's intention is to turn his life into a gay myth, an exemplar for generations to come." Feingold praised the work's "texture," attributing it to "the instinct for dissonance that makes Drake an artist." The New York Times' D.J.R. Bruckner singled out "12-Inch Single" and "Why I Go the Gym" for praise -- "Every line is spare, quick, complex; all the ideas seem self-reflective, skeptical and ambiguous." USA Today's David Patrick Stearns pronounced the show "riveting."
Later that summer, across town, the Democratic Party held its national convention, nominating Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton for president. An HIV+ gay man (Clinton campaign aide Bob Hattoy, who went on to a job in the Clinton White House) spoke at the convention, a major-party first. Dems in town for the event came to see Kramer, Drake recalls. It seemed to be a season of inclusion for gays and lesbians in mainstream politics, and of a new maturing of gay political power.
The play exerted power of its own at the box office, drawing fans of all sexual persuasions. "It was just weird how it would speak to certain people," Drake says. It also spoke to the judges of The Village Voice's Obie Awards, which honor off-Broadway theater productions, who gave Drake an acting award.
After nine months in the role he'd created, Drake bowed out of Kramer's New York production; on March 17, 1993, actor Eric Paeper took over the lead. Drake says he and Strub thought the move would establish help Kramer in audiences' minds as a play, not just a one-man phenomenon. Sitting in the audience during Paeper's debut, watching another actor speak words he felt that only he could say, Drake had a shattering revelation. "That night was one of the most exciting, and the one that left me the weakest," he says. "I thought, Omigod, I'm a writer." It would take him years to fully accept the meaning of this epiphany.
After giving up the role in New York, Drake headed west, taking Kramer to San Francisco for two months. He then did three months in Los Angeles, where his performance won him two L.A. Dramalogue awards.
Drake's newfound fame was opening up other opportunities, but his commitment to touring with Kramer limited his ability to take advantage of them. The day before he left for the play's stand in London, he was offered a spot in the Broadway cast of the Pulitzer Prize-winning AIDS drama Angels in America. Unable to break his English contract, Drake turned it down -- with a heavy heart. "It was the leading role in the most important play of the decade," he says, still sounding miserable about it. "I cried and cried and cried. I called my father."
After Great Britain, Drake took Kramer to Australia. "Dramatically, the conflicts are big enough to translate," he says of taking the play abroad. "The conflict of loss and how to cope. The conflict of the lonely child." Since Kramer's debut, there have been more than 100 productions in widely divergent settings. (In Omaha, Neb., not a city known for a large or vocal gay population, it played for two months. In Brazil, the play was translated into Portuguese and retitled Attitude.)
In 1995, after the Australian run, Drake kissed Larry Kramer goodbye -- or so he thought. "I didn't want the responsibility of The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me anymore," he says.
Now, Drake says, he believes he "was running away from my own voice." At the time, like any playwright who'd had a hit, he felt intense pressure to produce something else. And like many writers in that position, he responded by getting blocked.
"How do you follow up something that was phenomenally successful before you're 30 years old?" asks Drake, who was only 27 when he wrote Kramer and not quite 29 when it opened. "I mean, Tony Kushner took seven years to write Angels in America. Seven years! And as soon as it opened, it was like, 'Whaddaya got next?' "
Drake spent a year living in L.A., seeking film work. He met with industry heavyweights, such as Oscar-winning director John Schlesinger (Midnight Cowboy), who were trolling for more work from Drake's pen. "John Schlesinger wanted a screenplay," Drake says, but the writer couldn't produce. He discovered that Hollywood types aren't a patient breed. "They go [away] if you don't have anything. I didn't have anything."
He nabbed small roles in Philadelphia and Naked in New York, but learned that staying employed is a tough challenge for an openly gay young actor in Hollywood. In an interview with the Baltimore Gay Paper a year ago, Drake proclaimed himself the victim of film-industry homophobia. "I have been denied many, many job opportunities because I am 'known' as a gay man," he told BGP's Winnie McCroy. Now, though, he sees more nuances in his situation. Some people have resisted hiring him not simply because he's a gay actor, he says today, but because he's a gay actor who wrote a work that lays bare his political convictions. Drake sums up the industry thinking as, "When we hire you, we hire a whole set of ideas. [That] intimidates people. It gives them expectations."
If Hollywood was ambivalent about hiring Drake, he was growing equally ambivalent about being hired. "I wasn't happy being just an actor anymore. I wasn't happy just picking up a script and giving a performance," he says. "I was very frustrated and angry." He considered a variety of other avenues, at one point trying his hand at journalism, freelancing for national gay publications and editing the Strub-published POZ, a magazine for HIV+ readers.
Drake even began to distance himself from his shining achievement, giving everyone but himself credit for Kramer's success. "I would say, 'Well, it was really Sean's production. He's the reason this was in the world.' And I don't know what that was about." He entered therapy, which he said helped him "reclaim" his responsibility for creating the play: "I ultimately had to admit, 'Oh, I wrote this. This came out of my mouth.' "
In retrospect, Drake says, he has a greater understanding of his post-Kramer struggles, struggles rooted in the bright idealism that birthed the play. "I went through a period of grieving when the show ended," he says. "I thought it was gonna save the world. I thought it would save certain friends' lives. And of course, it's just a play."
One night in the summer of 1992, David Drake kissed Tim Kirkman. So to speak. And Kirkman never got over it.
At the time, Kirkman was a semicloseted graphic designer in his mid-20s. He'd fled his native North Carolina a couple of years earlier for what he hoped would be a freer life in New York. He was so swept away by Drake's performance in Kramer that he returned to see the play two more times.
"I became a huge fan immediately," says Kirkman, now 33, openly gay, and a filmmaker. "I went out and bought the book [which was published in 1994], and in the back of my mind I always knew I would be connected with this story in some way. I even had visions of performing it someday, which is hilarious to me now!"
Lots of nonactors have been impressed by a play they've seen; few are sufficiently inspired to get up and perform it themselves. What was different about Kramer? "[Drake] stirred in me a desire to connect and respond to the political and cultural crises in which we were surrounded at the time, and which still exist, daily," Kirkman says.
"It was a personal and political awakening, of sorts. A big one," he says. "[I] liked that it was not some sugarcoated, fantasy-based take on being gay in America. It was raw, it was critical, and it was real. And it didn't mince words. It insisted that people are either part of the solution or part of the problem. I had to ask myself, Well, which am I?"
In 1998, Kirkman began hitting the film-festival circuit with his first feature, the documentary Dear Jesse, which found him returning to North Carolina and discovering biographical parallels between his life and that of another native son: U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms. What resulted was an exposé of Helms' politics of bigotry and scapegoating, but one gentler and more nuanced than viewers might first expect. While his subject campaigned for re-election, Kirkman interviewed Helms foes and backers (but not Helms himself) and his own friends and relatives, even his family pastor. The resulting film is a moving, personal portrait of the complex humanity that thrives alongside -- and in spite of -- the rhetoric of political leaders. (Dear Jesse aired last year on Cinemax after Kirkman crafted an epilogue out of some nearly forgotten outtakes, including footage of an interview about homophobia on campus with a young man then attending college in the Tar Heel State: Matthew Shepard. The film is now available on video.)
For years, Drake had talked with various producers about making a movie out of Kramer, but finding an available, sympathetic director proved a constant stumbling block -- until a producer friend (who eventually dropped out of the project) introduced him to Kirkman in New York in the spring of '98.
"It became instantly clear to me that he was the right guy," Drake says. "He knew the piece, loved it, understood it, and had been extremely familiar with the actual text and story years before we ever sat down to lunch."
In addition to the obvious goal of preserving the play for posterity, Drake thought a film version of Kramer would "enable the work to reach more people -- especially to the nooks and crannies of the world where I could not reach audiences in live performance, due to the difficulties and finances of touring a live show."
One of the movie's producers, Kirkland Tibbels, of the Los Angeles-based company FILMNEXT, says he got involved in the project because he believes the filmed Kramer will be an educational document as well, showing future students the state of gay civil rights at the end of the 20th century. "I think that the play needed to be archived for the future," he says. He even invested some of his own money in the project.
Tibbels -- who says he tried three times to see Kramer in its original New York and L.A. runs but always found it sold out -- also notes that the play was commercially successful, and thus an attractive project for a producer. He won't reveal the movie's budget (other than pegging it as "low, low"), but he says belts were worn tightly during the production. "I'm from Texas," he adds, "so I know how to squeeze a nickel till the silver comes off."
Funding and filmmakers in place, the production looked for a home. Drake hadn't performed Kramer on his home turf since its very first staging at Towson State, but he had always intended to bring the play back to the Baltimore area. In 1998, he directed Villarrubia in a segment of the anthology Queer Café at Theatre Project and struck up a friendship with the theater's director, Bobby Mrozek. Mrozek began lobbying Drake to bring Kramer to the Mount Vernon stage for the filming.
An agreement was made. And thus began the waiting game. Through 1998 and '99 Kramer was slotted to run at Theatre Project three different times, but the runs kept falling through because of participants' other commitments. Finally, Mrozek says, he put their feet to the fire. "If I personally made a contribution," he says with a laugh, "it was in being the person who said, 'This is our last chance! I can't hold a spot forever! We need to book other things!'" Last May, Kramer finally played at Theatre Project for a two-week run, one day of which would be spent filming with an audience.
The filmmakers' hope was to overcome some of the inherent limitations of a wordy, stage-bound, one-actor piece, and some of the dramatic challenges of the individual scenes. Together, Drake and Kirkman sifted through assorted performance videos and documentaries, finding models in an eclectic lineup: Jonathan Demme's Stop Making Sense and Swimming to Cambodia, Sandra Bernhard's Without You I'm Nothing, Claudia Shear's Blown Sideways Through Life, Julia Sweeney's God Said Ha!, and Errol Morris' innovative The Thin Blue Line. Drake says he's pleased with the results. "For instance, I think the dramatic difficulties of sustaining the quest of 'The Vigil' . . . on stage has really been solved in the film version," he says in an e-mail. Later, on the phone, he elaborates, noting that the piece's structure can make it slow going for an audience.
"Once they see six candles on stage and I light that first candle, they think, Ohhhhhh ssssshhhhit," he says, exploding with laughter. "Every one of those candles is gonna have a story, and they're all gonna be about death!" And he sympathizes: The 22-minute "Vigil," generally regarded as the play's centerpiece, is not its easiest segment to watch. "It's a long piece, the longest in the show. It risks the audience checking out."
In the film version, Kirkman's camera floats constantly around the actor during the scene. "There's movement now," Drake says approvingly of the director's choices.
Mrozek, for one, remains convinced of the scene's power. Asked to name his favorite part of Kramer, he first gives a neutral, diplomatic answer: Theater is a subjective experience, every audience member sees a different play. But then he goes quiet. When he starts talking again, it is about another play and another performer: Alejandro Reyes, who starred in the U.S. premiere of Letter From an Artist as a Young Man at Theatre Project in May 1995. Mrozek says he considers seeing Reyes' performance in the play (an adaptation of James Joyce's book Portrait of the Artist as Young Man, written by Mexican playwright Martin Acosta) one of the highlights of his 20 years of association with theater; he calls Reyes "one of the greatest stage actors who ever lived." After the show wrapped its U.S. tour in July, the company returned to its native Mexico, where the actor soon died of AIDS.
Four years later, when Drake brought Kramer to Theatre Project, Mrozek was reminded of this loss every night during "The Vigil." Listening to Drake's words, he says, "I felt like David was talking about Alejandro."
Villarrubia -- the first person who ever saw "The Vigil" performed -- says the piece's impact isn't limited to people who've lost loved ones to AIDS, or even to death itself. It could be about people who drift away from us for any reason, he says, about nothing less than "all the things we can't control -- the unmanageability of life." As a result, Villarrubia says, its power grows with every passing year.
To prepare for the Theatre Project performances, Drake tweaked certain parts of the play to update it. The original play's hopeful, comic epilogue finds a character celebrating New Year's Eve 1999 with his lover and reminiscing about the years of struggle -- including a violent revolution -- that have come before. The update moves the action to New Year's Eve 2017, with appropriately current pop-culture references scattered throughout. As in the old version, AIDS is cured, gays have full rights, their most notorious enemies are dead, jailed, or in exile. In the revised epilogue, in a nod to the gay baby boom, the couple has a pair of kids.
The filming took place over the course of eight days, with the crew laboring 18 to 20 hours a day; all except one day of shooting was done without an audience. Mrozek says the shoot went smoothly. (Except, he says, for the day Drake and he drove the set down from New York, endured a busted alternator and a blown tire, and waited for road service on the New Jersey Turnpike. "We had a lot of time to bond," he laughs. "We had crew sitting around here [in Baltimore]. It was a very, very nervous day.") He praises Drake -- who endured up to 15 hours a day in makeup under the lights -- as an energetic trouper. "It got pretty toasty," Mrozek says. "But it seemed like he got better and better as everyone else was dragging."
Filming with an audience on May 29 proved a festive occasion. Villarrubia was there, as were old friends like the Spotlighters' now-deceased director, Audrey Herman, who had mentored Drake as a young actor. The audience was so supportive, Mrozek says, that when Kirkman yelled "Action!" the crowd obediently clammed up -- until Mrozek explained to them that noise was the point of having them there.
Kramer moves on to a circuit of film fests before being released nationally later this year. FILMNEXT will be its distributor; co-producer Tibbels says he fears it wouldn't have gotten enough attention from a bigger company, that the small film might have been rushed in and out of theaters and missed its audience. "This project isn't gonna be, 'That movie? Did that ever play here?' " he vows. "We didn't want to take the chance that someone in Dallas, Texas, who wants to see it won't get a chance to. If I was a big distributor, I wouldn't want to have to baby-sit it like we're gonna baby-sit it."
Kirkman isn't worried that the movie will be bound in a gay niche. "The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me speaks to anyone who will listen," he insists via e-mail. "Toni Morrison's beautiful book The Bluest Eye is in some ways as far from my own experience as I can imagine, and yet it ranks among the most profound artistic experiences I have ever had. . . . In order to be transported by any work, you must be willing to let go of all your expectations and prejudices in the world and become open to possibilities for having them all overturned."
He thinks Kramer's specificity may even be a plus for nongay viewers: "Because it does not try to speak for everyone, audiences have the opportunity to venture into a world that may seem foreign or a little scary. It takes courage to make art, but it also takes courage to see it, read it, experience it. It has been my experience that the greatest reward . . . comes with greatest risk or fear."
Drake says he isn't worried about who will "get" Kramer either. "I just don't think in those terms when I'm writing or acting a story," he says. "I always look at my work like I'm throwing a party -- and you either hop on or you don't."
He's less casual about the movie's effect on him, though: "The film version has been a bit of a transcendent experience for me, and one I did not expect at all."
The day after the Charles screening, Drake is heading to Washington, D.C., for the Millennium March. (He's not dissuaded by criticism within the gay community that the massive gay-rights rally is politically unnecessary or poorly organized. "That isn't a new story to the gay community," he says. "Personality conflicts and bad management . . . hel-lo! It's so retro!") And after the movie, after the march, he's going back onstage, alone. In addition to his usual diet of actor- and director-for-hire gigs, he's begun to perform solo work again, at benefits, just as he did while workshopping the pieces that became Kramer. Last year, Drake wrote, starred in, and produced a short film, The Trey Billing Show. He's currently in talks with Mrozek to bring a new solo piece to Theatre Project next season; Mrozek, for his part, is jazzed about his experience with Kramer and looking into bringing other film projects to his 175-seat venue.
Writing Kramer helped its creator come out as a political activist; revisiting it after all these years seems to have helped him come out again -- as an artist. "When you've got a specific point of view that you want to give to the world, it's very different than if you're simply stepping in to interpret whatever material is handed to you," he says in an e-mail, freshly returned to New York after that world premiere! in London. "I have slowly come to realize and accept this fact. It's taken time to adjust, but these days I'm much more embracing of the realities of being an artist -- rather than merely an actor. It's taken me a while to grow into my own voice."
A couple of days later, on the phone, he's even more upbeat about using that voice he first found a decade ago.
"I want to make good on that promise," he says. "Because it's still in me."
The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me screens at 9 P.M. April 29 at the Charles Theater, 1711 N. Charles St. David Drake and Tim Kirkman will introduce the film. Tickets are $10. A premiere party, open to screening ticket-holders, will follow at Theatre Project, 45 W. Preston St. The film begins a regular run at the Charles on May 5.
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