Kiss of Life

David Drake's one-man show is a charming, savage, and compelling snapshot of the ACT UP generation

And that's what this culture is interested in -- material profit. What matters is what sells. And what doesn't sell is best kept quiet about. But as ACT UP should have taught us -- all of us -- "Silence = Death." David Drake certainly understands that formula. He's a gay man of the ACT UP generation, and in 1992 he created The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me -- the longest-running one-man show in the history of New York theater. And it's fairly obvious the profit Drake has garnered from it is chiefly personal, and therefore political. For this film version, snappily directed by Tim Kirkman, Drake's reminiscence of growing up, coming out, and taking a stand sports a different ending. Onstage Drake imagined an end to AIDS. On-screen he offers up a vision of a rosy future world where gay is so much the norm that a remake's been made of The Way We Were starring Matt Damon and Ben Affleck.

He's joking, of course. In fact, the fantasy of domestic tranquillity that's spun around it -- with Drake sounding every inch the suburban housewife as he clucks with pride over his husband and kids -- is arguably the most savage thing in the show. For, at heart, David Drake will always be what he himself calls a "12-inch single" -- a free gay man whom no culture can encapsulate or tame. A Will with no need for a Grace. And whether audiences -- particularly gay audiences -- are ready for such a vision is an open question. There's a new generation now, one that doesn't want to talk about AIDS anymore. No real cure has been found, and the protease inhibitors that have been developed in recent years are wildly expensive and have many deleterious side effects. But in a culture hooked on novelty and insistent spokesmodel cheeriness, AIDS is something everyone would rather shove into the back of a closet -- right next to the hula hoops and lava lamps.

But it's not going to go away, and David Drake isn't going to go away. For his memories of going to see A Chorus Line and getting his first kiss from "swim team Tim" are as fresh as ever. His recollection of wonder at the sight of the Village People -- the life-size Barbies of every gay boy's dream -- is just as charming. His reminiscences of AIDS deaths, particularly the passing of a next-door neighbor he scarcely knew, are just as compelling. And then there's David Drake himself. Blond, slim, sweet-looking, he appears at first to be every actor/ waiter you've ever known. But then you look closer and discover a harder edge: The pure physicality of his performance -- a monologue that's half-spoken and half-chanted -- is genuinely unusual. And he has a way of shifting the focus and energy of the piece in a flash that director Kirkman (whose previous efforts include the documentary Dear Jesse, in which the late Matthew Shepard made a brief appearance) capitalizes on most attractively.

There's a real art to the one-person-show movie, with Secret Honor, Swimming to Cambodia, and God Said "Ha!" having initiated a tradition that The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me fits into well. Drake has only to turn his head for Kirkman to change camera position and thus create the champ-contrechamp effect common to two-person dialogue scenes. That, plus clever lighting, chases away any sense of claustrophobic smallness. In fact, we find ourselves moving closer to Drake as the film progresses, in a way not possible onstage. He's an expressive performer, but he often as not utilizes his expressiveness to hide things.

The "David Drake" whom Drake portrays in The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me isn't always onto himself. "That was not my story but it was my story," he says of A Chorus Line, perfectly encapsulating the feeling of self-estrangement every gay person experiences on first encountering his representation in a culture that has so long and so resolutely ignored him. Moreover, there's something irresistibly witty in Drake's insistence on seeing homoeroticism and militancy as two sides of the same coin in his monologue "That's Why I Go to the Gym," in which physical development to arm oneself against danger is at one with falling into the arms of some handsome stranger. And it's in that sense that the "kiss" Drake gets from Larry Kramer is most ambiguous.

The kiss is, needless to say, primarily metaphorical, springing from seeing Kramer's play The Normal Heart -- a protest drama about the early days of the AIDS epidemic and Kramer's rage at the gay community's confused initial response to the crisis. But that play also discloses an ambivalence about gay sexuality that Drake plainly does not share. He enjoys being gay, and revels in pure erotic sensation for its own sake -- something Kramer has always abhorred. Yet there's another kiss the title refers to that isn't metaphoric. It comes from Drake meeting Kramer for the first time and telling him that his, Drake's, birthday is the same day as the Stonewall uprising -- which took place when Drake was just 6. So upon hearing that, what could Larry Kramer do but kiss David Drake? It surely was no hardship on his part. And for those who'll be touched by what he has to say in this film, the line to kiss Drake forms to the left.Bearing witness to an age is a lonely business. There are truths to tell, heroes to celebrate (and mourn), and enemies to fight. But there's rarely material profit to be found in such activity.

 
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