The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me
A Chocolate Sandwich
Footsteps Theatre Company
If contemporary gay playwrights are to be believed, every gay man's coming-out story is the same: innocently gender-confused childhood, heart-stopping stolen kiss in high school, parental reprimand and disapproval, escape to a liberal urban mecca, indulgence in residual self-loathing acted out in numerous sexual escapades, sober confrontation with the Plague, and finally pride, acceptance, a raised fist, a "Silence=Death" T-shirt, and inclusion in "the tribe."
It's a scenario I've seen onstage a dozen times over the past few years. While such a journey to self-discovery has great theatrical potential, rarely have these pieces stretched beyond the self-congratulatory self-indulgence of bad group therapy. It's the "I'm gay, therefore my life is interesting" school of theater. And why even bother to be interesting if you can titillate? The press release may praise the performer's insights into gay politics, relationships, or "contemporary life," but more often what keeps the house packed is just his readiness to peel off his clothes.
David Drake's one-man play The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me--a runaway New York hit--fits squarely into this genre. There Drake was, splayed shirtless across an enormous billboard in Greenwich Village. There he was, onstage in a jockstrap deriding the zealous pursuit of the body beautiful. There he still is, buffed on the cover of the published script. His play sticks to the not-straight but narrow confines of queer agitprop, with abundant quantities of righteous indignation, personal confession, and homoerotic celebration. The script is surely a great bit of consciousness-raising for those gay men who still need reassurance that gay is good. But theatrically it comes dangerously close to pure pastiche of Tim Miller, Michelangelo Signorile, and ACT UP press clippings.
Still, Drake just manages to push beyond his formulaic structure, not only through the carefully crafted rhythms of his brutal, streamlined, and at times hallucinogenic poetry but through the unadulterated anger behind nearly every moment of the piece. Sometimes that anger leads him to take easy shots; the standard villains are lined up like ducks in a row, including William Dannemeyer, Robert Gallo, the New York Times, and every Queer Nationalist's favorite whipping boy, the straight-acting-straight-appearing gay man. But when that rage becomes a torrential flood, the results are spectacular. In the episode called "12" Single," an incantatory piece set to driv-ing electronic dance music, Drake's sexual desperation eventually leads him to getting the shit kicked out of him. In the original show he ran a hunting knife repeatedly across his bare chest; a photo from that production shows the knife nearly puncturing his skin.
That knife is missing from Bailiwick's show. And its absence is indicative of everything this production lacks: namely, Drake's intensity as a performer. Actor David Coronado, under Kerry Riffle's direction, takes a levelheaded approach to Drake's heady trip, and the result is a clear, accessible, but decidedly tepid evening. His "12" Single" is closer to a slightly frustrating Saturday night at Roscoe's than a confrontation with self-destructive tendencies.
Like many solo actors in Chicago, Coronado gets so bogged down in acting that he doesn't genuinely connect with his audience. In the play's opening moments, for example, he watches an imaginary production of West Side Story, putting his focus well above the audience's heads before he's even established a rapport with them (Drake's script specifies that the performer "watches the show unfold, describing it as he speaks," but there's hardly a playwright alive who's his or her own best director). Coronado spends much of his time trying to relive the stories he tells rather than simply telling them. I have no doubt that Coronado's experience in the production is very real for him--his performance is admirably candid and heartfelt--but his job is to make it all real for the audience.
Poppy Champlin, in her one-woman show A Chocolate Sandwich, has even more trouble relating to her audience. Reliving childhood memories for about two hours, Champlin almost never speaks in a genuine voice, adopting instead a fidgety, breathless, self-consciously adolescent persona, complete with overly earnest baby voice. These seemingly unedited autobiographical vignettes are at once so sketchy, plodding, and occasionally self-aggrandizing that they don't seem ready for public consumption.
But when Champlin breaks from this persona and performs stand-up comedy, her penchant for digression pays off in a barrage of pointed, ludicrous imagined possibilities. She loves mini pads, she tells us, because they can double as cushioned insoles, but she fears the female condom because it might unexpectedly eject like an automobile air bag. Before she's off to her next dozen topics, she indulges in a Vegas-style laugh, effectively lampooning her self-important claim to center stage.
Such self-deprecation and keen wit are missing from most of her observations about her own life. Too often Champlin mentions various facts from her childhood--she lived on a 27-acre Rhode Island farm, she had a minibike, her mother had a pet fox--without meaningful elaboration. It's almost as if she finds any autobiographical detail stageworthy. When she finally gets to the meat of her piece--the family traumas she faced as an adolescent--the preceding hour and a half of trivialities makes the more serious material seem ham-handed. Champlin is a gifted comic with a fertile imagination who clearly is not leading with her strengths this time.