Guy Lib

There are few theatrical experiences more gratifying than watching a talented young artist fulfill his promise. Theatergoers who saw David Drake performing his off-Broadway smash The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me in 1991 were witness to that rare occurrence. In a little more than an hour, audiences saw Drake rant and whisper his way through an autobiographical one-act about contemporary gay life that proved, if nothing else, that performance art could evolve into something useful.

It takes nothing away from Rusty Ferracane's performance in Davis Productions' current presentation of Larry Kramer to say that Drake is in every movement, that--while Ferracane makes each scene his own--it's Drake's voice we hear, loud and clear, in each of the half-dozen stories told here.

Regardless of who's enacting it, Larry Kramer is a difficult piece of theater to perform, and harder still to summarize. Even the title is troublesome: It sounds like the name of a fanciful musical comedy, but actually refers to a night in 1985 when the author was moved to embrace gay activism after witnessing a production of Larry Kramer's AIDS play The Normal Heart.

A quirky fusion of theatrical monologue and performance art, there's nothing--save a handful of tossed-off comments--typically queer or overtly campy about Larry Kramer. Yet not one of Drake's scenes can be synopsized without sounding overworked or typically queer: In "A Thousand Points of Light," he recalls friends and lovers lost to AIDS; in "Twelve Inch Single," he enacts various gay "types" who read aloud their own classified sex ads while dancing to a disco tune. Suffice to say that Drake's writing overcomes the very stereotypical constructs he chooses, and that, when he penned these stories, those cliches hadn't yet shown up in every third gay play to cross the boards.

Ferracane's performance helps enormously. With the assistance of little more than James Clotfelter's expert lighting, he shifts among Drake's various personae with quick precision. His simple alterations of voice, posture and facial muscles create an almost hallucinatory flow of consciousness as these stories unravel on the tiny stage.

Matthew Mazuroski proves both his skill as a director and his talent for being in two places at once: While steering this production, he was in rehearsal for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, in which he's now appearing across town. Mazuroski's savvy, subtle changes to ". . . and the Way We Were"--the evening's final story, which imagines a future without AIDS or Jesse Helms--give the scene a fierce, cautionary tone.

Drake, who thinks it could use an update, scheduled this last piece for a rewrite. "I feel like I let the producers of the Phoenix production down," Drake told me when I phoned him at home in Manhattan. "I promised I'd do an update of '. . . and the Way We Were,' but I never got to it."

Drake was eating marshmallow fluff and listening to a record called Patty Duke Sings Songs From Valley of the Dolls when I phoned. He says he's been working on a screenplay for a film translation of Larry Kramer, set to go before the cameras next month.

"But I wish I'd had time to do that rewrite. So many of the things in that piece came true. Of course, not enough of the big ones. We still have AIDS. And Jesse Helms."

As with his stage persona, much of Drake's prattle ends in punch lines. Asked about others performing his intimately autobiographical stories, he snickers.

"Everyone wants to do this show. Glenn Close has been touring with it for months," he quips. "I can't get her to stop!

"The show was written for me and about me, but there's a certain universality in those stories. They can certainly be performed by others and still get their messages across."

Those messages are aimed at a pretty refined audience. "The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me doesn't speak to straight people like a lot of mainstream gay entertainment does," Drake says. "There's very little in there that's meant to educate straights about what gay people are about, or that they're meant to find amusing or enlightening."

Drake's unapologetic approach works: Larry Kramer has been performed in nearly 100 different productions in 10 countries these past few years. The show's appeal outside the United States, Drake believes, is that, "in other countries, the stories are as much about American politics as anything else. The way individuals and activists here deal with the politics of sexuality, AIDS and discrimination. They look at these stories and they say, 'Oh, a slice of queer American life. How nice!'"

The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me continues through Sunday, May 2, at On the Spot Theater, 4700 North Central.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela