Free To Be How A Small-town Boy Found Salvation-and Liberation-in The Theater

September 13, 1992|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Theater Critic

New York -- David Drake doesn't know when he first realized he was gay, but he remembers being aware that he was different by the time he was 6 or 7.

"I was a sissy. I liked to play with dolls. I liked to dress up. There was something very different from what the other little boys were," the boyish blond-haired actor/playwright recalled on a recent warm day in the Greenwich Village apartment where he lives with two cats.

A fourth-floor walk-up above an Italian restaurant, Drake's tiny, cluttered apartment doesn't look like the home of a star. There are cracks in the plaster, dishes in the sink, and the furniture is decidedly more thrift shop than antique. Nor does Drake dress like a star: He is wearing jeans and a flannel shirt with the sleeves cut off at the shoulder.

But in the past few months, the Maryland-bred performer has been emitting enough heat and light to pass for a small galaxy. His poster is plastered all over the Village and there's a billboard around the corner from the Perry Street Theatre, where he appears six nights a week in "The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me," an off-Broadway hit since its June opening.

The one-man show could be described as a semi-autobiographical portrait of the gay artist as a young man. Drake's major on-stage epiphany comes on his 16th birthday, when he attends a touring production of "A Chorus Line" at the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre and suddenly hears, "my story/Out of the mouth of that Puerto Rican, dancer-boy Paul/telling the story/of a boy who loves boys."

The title, "The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me," refers to the author of "The Normal Heart," a groundbreaking, call-to-arms AIDS drama. The kiss is both metaphorical and literal. Metaphorically, it describes the effect Kramer's 1985 play had on Drake, shocking him out of denial and into awareness about the AIDS epidemic. The literal kiss came five years later when Drake found himself manning a booth with Kramer on Gay Pride Day; Kramer gave him a kiss of solidarity after learning that Drake's birthday is Sept. 27, the anniversary of the Stonewall riots, a Greenwich Village uprising that has become a landmark in the gay rights movement.

But the show, which consists of seven poetic vignettes, is about more than coming of age politically. It is also about coming of age as a gay man in America, and since Drake, 29, grew up in Harford County, it is specifically about growing up gay in small-town Maryland. In a larger sense, Drake has written a tribute to some of the most highly valued American qualities -- individuality and the courage to be true to yourself.

"The fact that he personalizes everything he does to such a degree is what makes it universal," says his friend Jose %o Villarrubia, a Baltimore photographer, painter and lecturer at Towson State University, who arranged for Drake to try out portions of his show at local venues including Towson State, Maryland Art Place and the BAUhouse before its New York premiere.

When the play opened off-Broadway, the Associated Press called it "fast, furious and fascinating." Rex Reed wrote in the New York Observer: "It's rare to discover a talent this vast, diversified and appealing. . . . David Drake is a major new voice with a soul big enough to touch us all." And Jan Stuart of New York Newsday said, "It wouldn't surprise me if 'The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me' became to Gay and Lesbian Pride Day what 'Miracle on 34th Street' is to Christmas."

Encouraged by an audience turnout that has held steady at 90 percent capacity -- even in the normally slow months of July and August -- Drake's producers recently extended their lease at the Perry Street Theatre beyond September, to the end of the year.

A NUMBER OF DETOURS

David Drake's off-stage persona is considerably more G-rated than his mature-audiences-only performance, but he is every bit as forthcoming. His all-American boy appearance is mirrored by the sheer likableness of his manner. In the theater, this quality carries over the footlights; in the comfort of his living room, it's reflected in the guilelessness with which he presents the details of a life that has taken a number of detours from the path of the typical all-American boy.

In his show's opening vignette, Drake discovers that kindred spirit on stage in "A Chorus Line" on the same night that his parents discover his homosexuality. His date, Tim, gives him a good night kiss in front of his Edgewood, Md., house, and the porch light suddenly floods on, followed by, as the script puts it, "Living room light explosions, eruptions, discussions" and a heated exchange in which his parents insist, "You can't be gay" and "It's a phase."

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