Early on in David Drake's The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me, we find out that the kiss of the title came not from gay activist and playwright Kramer but from his play about the AIDS crisis, The Normal Heart. On June 27, 1985, Drake tells us, he went to see the play "that shot through a loose cannon-mouth and exploded my soul into a thousand teardrop deaths," leaving him forever a changed man. Before this, he had known he was gay, but Kramer's play politicized him, "hurled me out onto the street and into the folded arms of a New York Times nation that refused to embrace my snot-run-face."
From this time on, Drake suggests, he had not just an orientation but a cause, an obligation to speak out for gay rights and against the silence that was insidiously promoting a gay plague. Like Kramer, he became an activist; and like Kramer, he wrote a play. We can easily imagine the motive: to do for others what Kramer's play once did for him — to alert, to warn, to politicize.
He seems to have succeeded, at least in part. The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me may tell you nothing new about gay culture or the AIDS disaster, but it presents gay concerns with a defiant forthrightness, which is a message all its own. So even when Drake's writing is less than superb — and it never reaches the level of Angels in America, Love! Valour! Compassion! or Lemon Sky — still, we're moved by the writer's vehemence and honesty. This may not be great art, but it's a pretty good civics lesson. And that, most likely, is what David Drake is really after.
The play takes place on a stage backed by a sheet of corrugated metal, and featuring four poles on which hang shirts and coats. Onto this stage comes actor Carl Lerer, who reaches for one of the shirts, exposing behind it a pink triangle (we'll eventually discover three more such triangles). Donning this shirt, Lerer begins "The Birthday Triptych" — a three-part monologue that ties the author/speaker's June 27 birthday to three key events: the night of the Stonewall Riots (age 6), the night A Chorus Line spoke to him of his gay identity (age 16), and the night he saw The Normal Heart (age 22).
There's more: At age 6, Drake was excited to witness a community theater production of West Side Story; at age 16, he confessed his sexual preference to an older boy, who responded by kissing him; and at age 22, well, that was the night "Larry Kramer" kissed him, and his life as an activist began.
But back to early memories: In the next segment, "Say Your Prayers," Drake is 8 years old and remembering how he came to buy a Village People album for his mother ("Oh, but when I told Janis about them, after I'd heard them at Rudolph's, she said 'They're fairies!'... But they don't look like fairies on the record cover. They look really tough — really cool"). This leads logically to the next, lengthy segment, "Why I Go To The Gym," a complicated, unpredictable summation of the various forces at work in a "simple" visit to the neighborhood health club.
Drake starts this segment by pointing out the purely sexual attractions of getting dressed in the changing room ("Amongst the other guys snapping snaps, belts, and elastic straps against their naked buttocks"). He reminds himself that there are straights in the building ("But be warned. And beware. Because it's a mix of Us and Them") and then throws himself into a workout which unexpectedly turns into an angry aria of self-defense ("Our bodies are our weapons for the day we bash the bashers back into the graves they've dug for us").
Blackout — and then we're into "12-inch Single," about cruising a gay disco and imagining the personal ads that particular partiers might have written ("Cute & Cuddly: GWM, 32, 5'2", 120 lbs., Dewy drop eyes. Generous, concerned and CLEAN. Lookin' for: good-hearted, AIDS-negative, regular guy for friendship, fun times, and fist fucks"). Before this segment is over, the S&M undercurrent comes even closer to the surface. A knife is drawn, and what had seemed an easily understandable situation becomes dangerously muddy.
And then we move on to "A Thousand Points of Light," a series of elegies for victims of AIDS. I wish I could say that this well-meaning, gently emotional segment was successful, but in fact it's the most predictable few minutes in the entire evening. Drake/Lerer remembers the departed, speaks of their last days, lights one candle, then another, imagines that the dead have all become stars (and even quotes "Twinkle, twinkle, little star").
Which leads us to the final, and much more original section, "The Way We Were." This is a vision of a gay utopia, in which Matt Damon and Ben Affleck play lovers on screen, there's a National Gay Holiday and the Smithsonian Museum opens a Queer Cultures Wing. This section is so inventive, it immediately reminds us of how much imagination was lacking in many of the more documentary scenes that preceded it. But, again, Drake seems more interested in politics than in art, and good politics is, first and foremost, about reality. David Drake wants to make a real, not just a literary, impact.
So is it good theater? Mostly, yes. Lerer is a fine actor, capable of a wide range of emotion. Director/ set designer Jeffery Kin has made the most of scenes that demand physical precision (for example, the disco segment). The production is cheapened, though, by Lerer's onstage clothes-changing, which seems motivated only by a desire to titillate the audience. Bill Booth's sound design is tip-top, though, and in general, this is one of the most professional-looking shows that Central Stage Theatre has presented in its short history.
A baldly political play. Larry Kramer wrote one, and David Drake was listening.
This time Drake is the playwright.
And who knows who's listening?
Contact performing arts critic Mark E. Leib at [email protected] or call 813-248-8888, ext. 305.