Wednesday, December 5, 2012

NEW YORK REVIEW: DIVA WORSHIP 'Patti Issues' at The Duplex

Patti LuPone and Ben Rimalower/
Photo by Jenny Anderson for

Barbra, Bette, Cher, Gaga. 

Brassy divas and talent gargantuas whose style and brazenness is implicit in their punchy monikers. Gay men, in particular, have a very special relationship with these über-talented women; to such an extent that the mutual relationship has transitioned into a kind of symbiosis. Gays embrace the performers' unashamed expression and accepted societal rebelliousness, an echo of their own countercultural existence, while the ladies proudly stand up for gay causes in appreciation of their obsessive fans. Without over-generalizing, diva worship, in one form or another, is near inherent to the modern day gay experience. 

In the theatre, those fabulous divas are Bernadette, Audra and, of course, Patti LuPone, the pseudo-subject of a new one-man play by Ben Rimalower. There is much to love about Rimalower's cleverly titled "Patti Issues," presented in The Duplex's upstairs cabaret space. But the most intriguing thread of this coming-of-age "A Star Is Born" is the evolution of one young gay man's adorable admiration of La LuPone blossoming into a full-fledged working relationship. From the outsider-looking-in to the insider-talking-out.

Rimalower, who might be best known to show geeks as the director and conceiver of "Leslie Kritzer is Patti LuPone at Les Mouches," a recreation of LuPone's famed 1980 concert, has made a wise choice in presenting his monologue at the Duplex - a quaint and comfortable West Village gay bar on Seventh Avenue - for his work, indeed, appeals to an awfully specific niche. As a card carrying member of that niche, (in high school, I saw all three Ravinia Festival performances of LuPone's "Gypsy", and can still lecture you how her "Rose's Turn" changed from night to night), I was quite taken by this unassuming work, directed by Aaron Mark. 

What a fulfilling feeling it is to sit with your gin and tonic listening to Patti singing "I Got The Sun In The Mornin'" during recorded pre-show music with a group of people who all understand the concurrent gloriousness and absurdity of a fifty-nine-year-old woman playing Annie Oakley. Rimalower knows that his audience is with him at every turn and every pun. If you're not, at least, on the fringe of that niche, a story about a bespectacled guy running lines with Patti in her apartment during rehearsals for Lonny Price's concert edition of "Sweeney Todd," might not titillate you as it did me. Of course, if it doesn't, chances are you're not the ideal patron of the Duplex, where "Mostly Sondheim" on Friday night is a weekly highlight. 

Rimalower's writing is, perhaps, at its best when he describes the spirituality of the show tune - part out-of-body rapture à la "Amadeus," part Chelsea Lately. The performer discovers "Evita" as a young man, and, as happens for so many, it closely coincides with his coming out. When Patti's Evita proclaims, "I am only a simple woman," Rimalower, without thinking, snappily retorts, "Hardly, but go on." The performer, like his audience, knows all these songs, their quirks and nuances, inside and out, so the effect is a casual conversation - at brunch.

There is a coastal smoothness to the rhetoric of the performer, a child of California who moved to New York City in his twenties. Unlike commonplace tales of the naïve Midwesterner finding his footing in the Big Apple, Rimalower was born city savvy, lending his childhood persona a witty wry precociousness. His father, who does not share his last name, is also gay, and the hardships arising from that youthful revelation clearly made their mark on the performer. And make for some biting, unflinching commentary in his show - like a more colloquial Sedaris with a flair for light vulgarity and musical theatre.

"Patti Issues," in some ways has the feel of a work-in-progress, which is quite all right at this juncture. After all, Rimalower is still a young guy who's making his way in New York City. His show isn't "Prince of Broadway," with a (reported) hologram of Harold Prince nonchalantly harping on the his litany of Tony-winning triumphs. But knowing that this Off Broadway director is going to walk out of the Duplex, continue to fight for his career and lead a vibrant life is part of the show's warm charm. The final third of Rimalower's monologue needs the kind of fleshing out that can only come from even more underdog experiences, which will inevitably happen. But for now "Patti Issues" is great fun, relatable, hilarious and knowledgeable of its audience. -Johnny Oleksinski