Kiss of Death

Larry Kramer is perhaps best known as a pugnacious sort who regularly vilifies the editors of the New York Times and intimidates genteel talk-show hosts like Charlie Rose. In 1985, though, the gay activist and co-founder of ACT-UP (the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) became famous for writing The Normal Heart, a groundbreaking play that politicized the subject of AIDS when every mainstream media organization in America, including the venerable Times, seemed to deny the disease's existence.

But even though the bald-pated, bespectacled writer's abrasive style has earned him the enmity of both conservatives and liberals, his brand of crusading is ultimately a compassionate one that probably has softened more hearts than it's hardened. At least, that's the effect his polemic appears to have had on the central character in The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me, David Drake's one-man show about a young man's growing political awareness that begins with a trip to see Kramer's aforementioned off-Broadway drama.

All of the characters in the Obie-winning play, which is being presented by Theatre on Broadway, are portrayed by actor Brian Houtz, who bears an uncanny physical resemblance to the boyish playwright. (Director Nicholas Sugar further emphasizes the semi-autobiographical nature of Drake's work by having the protagonist take Houtz's given name.) As the personable Brian adroitly introduces us to each of the people who've had a part in shaping his development, one gets the feeling--well-founded, it turns out--that no matter what controversial topics the drama will cover or where things will eventually lead, it's going to be an enjoyable journey.

In fact, as performed by Houtz, the seventy-minute, intermissionless monologue seems more like a forthright and revealing conversation with a good friend than a militant ACT-UP rally. And despite the fact that Drake's predictions about a queer revolution occurring by the end of the millennium have yet to be realized--written in 1992, the play foretells the Clintons, including Chelsea and her lesbian lover, becoming street-marching gay-rights advocates--most of Brian's musings about the need to fight for what's right spring from an untainted idealism. He might not exude a Sixties protester's outrage or an Eighties agitator's vindictiveness, but Brian, we learn, has his own way of wielding a sword for justice and carrying a torch for truth.

Brian's curiosity about the world outside of suburbia begins to take shape at--where else?--the Baltimore County Community Theater, where he saw his first musical, West Side Story. Although the impressionable sixteen-year-old says he's captivated by Leonard Bernstein's music, he also admits that what really piqued his interest were all the wigs and dancing and blood. Brian's love of musical entertainment becomes even more heightened when his first love interest, a seventeen-year-old "older man" named Tim ("Swim-team, debate-team, title-role-in-the-spring-musical-Pippin Tim") takes him to the Big Apple to see A Chorus Line. Upon returning home to Baltimore, Tim attempts to kiss Brian goodnight, a move that's frowned upon by Brian's father when he turns on the porch light in anticipation of his son's impending arrival. Later, Brian realizes that his uptight, chain-smoking parents will never be able to come to grips with his homosexuality and, echoing Tony and Maria's lament in Bernstein's love story, says to the audience, "There is a place for you--New York."

Shortly after arriving in Manhattan, though, Brian sees Kramer's play, which opens his eyes to the AIDS epidemic and the resulting dearth of news coverage concerning it. Determined to take up his newfound hero's cause, the now-22-year-old Brian explores the underbelly of New York's gay community while selling T-shirts, pumping iron ("I gotta get wide enough to knock the world down," he says) and participating in pride parades. But even though he continues to immerse himself in a life of fantasy by going to Broadway musicals ("the lullaby that floats the depression away"), Brian observes that the AIDS-related deaths of several friends have made Kramer's metaphorical buss to the soul feel more like a cold, hard smack in the face. Indeed, Brian sorts out his feelings about society's treatment of people with AIDS by talking to the ghosts of some who have died. He remembers his chorus-dancer friend Paul, for instance--a man whose gifts went largely unappreciated by audiences who were more interested in his hoofing ability than in learning anything about his affliction--with a mixture of wistful regret and quiet anguish as he murmurs, "To this minute I still hate musicals." As Drake's play draws to a close, Brian recites a few lines from a poem and, candle in hand, symbolically illuminates the night sky with his "point of light."

In addition to investing the drama with healthy doses of levity and affability, Houtz also lends the play an earnestness that never appears contrived or apologetic. It's hard to know where one Brian ends and the other begins, but that's partly the point. Both Drake's central character and Houtz represent a new generation of gay men who have never known a world without AIDS and are struggling, somehow, to claim their place in it. And though much has changed in the seven years since Drake first performed this piece, much, unfortunately, abides.

On the technical side, Houtz could execute some of the costume changes on stage and thereby take advantage of the instant informality afforded by exposed theatricality. He could also enhance the impact of his delivery now and then by narrowing his focus to an area just above the heads of the audience. By and large, though, most of Houtz's choices, as well director Sugar's touches, foster a spirit of intimacy by breaking down the barriers--both real and imagined--that separate Houtz from his audience. Which, come to think of it, might just be the greatest tribute they could pay to Kramer's persistent head-banging.

The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me, through August 31 at Theatre on Broadway, 13 South Broadway, 303-860-9360.


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