I love heading to shows, plays and movies when I know little or nothing about the format, plot or players. I like arriving with no baggage, letting the story just unfold without my knowing where it, or the audience, is headed once the lights dim.
All the knowledge I had about "PATTI ISSUES," Ben Rimalower's uppercase one-man show with Patti Lupone in the title, running intermittently through December 30th at New York City's Duplex has already been shared in this sentence.
So, unarmed with information, I expected a sing-y musical review, a possibly high-camp homage to a Broadway legend, and before the first of our-two drink minimum arrived, there was no reason to suspect otherwise: we were in the cabaret room, a lot of in-between-shows theater people packed in at almost every round table around us, baby grand piano sitting off in the shadows of the stage. Hell, there might even be wigs involved.
Okay. But no.
This is no musical homage, and it's not really about La Lupone at all, though her presence is as real as that gleaming baby grand. Rimalower keeps her on stage or in the wings through judicious but passionate and vividly-painted reference, only his words setting the stage, changing the scenery, and moving the clock from childhood to Now, in a brief but energetic and word-packed 60-minute show.
What Rimalower has created and breathlessly delivers with only about three pauses (each time to suck on his straw like a marathon runner at well-deserved water stations...) is a rapid-fire barrage of his tale of three lives (his, Patti's and to some respect, Evita Peron's) poetically and almost unimaginably intertwined by circumstance, serious luck and showbiz serendipity.
But this show is Ben's turn. The larger-than-life and iconic Patti Lupone is nearly relegated back to Chorus Girl: a voice on a phone, a face on a poster, a name on a CD. The drama is reserved for Ben's Jewish family, an odd connection to Buenos Aires, and the burdens that coming out and coming to terms with changing family dynamic places on a childhood already in progress. If it's an homage to anything, it's how big a role divas, theater and music play in the lives of gay kids... providing escape, solace, inspiration, and in Rimalower's case, high parallel.
The star here is the story Rimalower shares, at once hysterical and bubbly then brutally honest and dark, without a beat in between. Offhanded references give way suddenly to moving moment, and the ride is constructed nicely. It's a little like Disney's Space Mountain: you know it's gonna be fun, you know it's a roller coaster, but in the dark, you can't see when the heart-stopping drops come, or where your car is headed next. The delivery and structure reminds me of Leslie Jordan's one-man shows, where while you are howling with laughter, a moment of pathos leaps into your path before you see it coming or can turn the wheel. Pow.
Rimalower hits just the right tone of representing Lupone with a dead-on impersonation, just enough to keep her real, represent his fanaticism for her, and convey the arc of their relationship. When Lupone does factor directly into the plot, she is conveyed with reverence or played for full comedic relief. I half expected this to turn into a story of a gay man's idolatry being shattered, like when you catch the mall Santa taking a swig from a Johnny Walker bottle, but that moment never comes. The Diva is never dissed, certainly not in any way that surprises or would jeopardize a relationship Mr. Rimalower has managed to maintain, and to some extent, upon which he still seems to rely.
Yes, there's singing, but the piano is never touched. Ben cherry-picks and delivers fragments from Lupone endeavors (Evita, Gypsy, Sweeney Todd) with spare but careful consideration, and in some instances, the lyrics seem too perfectly delicious to not be written about the real story here: a gay kid, bouncing between two coasts and two fathers, then struggling with finding a profession and professional voice, all while paying off credit card debt and maneuvering family histrionics, with a dollop or two of sexual denial and Jewish guilt along the way. Remarkably, too, given subject matter, Rimalower steers largely clear of uncomfortable gay cliché.
Rimalower is an exceptional storyteller and painter of place. I'm half convinced there was video footage from Patti's famous Les Mouche performance in the actual show, even though there most certainly wasn't. He transports us to doctor's office (a heartbreaking image of misguided beds made in a waiting room), into Patti's Upper West Side apartment or Philharmonic rehearsal space, and locks us out of bathrooms with vivid description and only the most minimal of stage movement... so little in fact, that the shift from center stage to stool, when it happened, was almost not necessary, and near-distraction. Rimalower kept all eyes and ears on him from one single point.
Rimalower manages to shift vocal tone and countenance well enough to let us know which Ben we're watching (young or old, irate or ecstatic, beaten down or ripe with optimism). He also manages to embody his birth father (the only other character he takes on, other then Patti and a quick phone conversation with a fickle and ultimately disowning grandmother). I wonder, though, if a more staged future production of this tale might include one other actor in the father's role (I'd love to see recently Out comedian Todd Glass play the good doctor, were that to happen), but then again, that might upstage what is basically a well-told story. It also might spoil the purely voyeuristic thrill of it all.
There is the unexplored subplot of a charmed life here, letting a kid go from buying an Evita album with a gift certificate to sharing a sofa and co-production credits with his longtime idol. Some of the connections were skirted around, with only vague reference of the who's and how's of their happening. That's a conversation I'd like to have with Ben over martinis some time. It does seem to prove it is who you know in his or any business, and that being in the right place at the right time still carries more weight than the perfect two-page resume or handsome headshot.
The one-man show is beautifully written, conversationally crafted to sound like he is just holding court (as I suspect he does) at a dinner or cocktail party. There are no speech-y monologue moments, which generally seem like auditions for something the audience is not privy to. Not here.
It makes it all very "listenable," a trait seemingly rare and fleeting in all but the best of one-man shows. I think of Leslie Jordan again, and Dan Butler as other examples where it works, and Rimalower (himself, a proven off-Broadway director) is a storyteller and stage presence of equal and captivating aplomb.
The hour flies, although I was exhausted by the end of it. The timeline and cross-country moves are clear, and the emotion is never lost or belittled. Although, interesting to note, most of the emotion happens around and to Rimalower. I'd love to see a little more Ben invested in however this evolves next.
I won't reveal the biggest plot points of Ben's family life, since this show seems to work best by not knowing where the drama will drop in. While it's the kind of mythical New York story that happens, but just never seems to happen to you, there is a LOT of material here that the LGBT community will relate to. While it's a crazy tale in some respects, in most others, it ends up being highly relatable, and some parts, still sadly universal. It's also a brilliant testimony to the old adage: "Write what you know."
The only quibble is with pacing: the story keeps coming and coming and coming. While that momentum keeps the audience effectively disarmed, and fully exposed for turns to the emotional tenor of the content, it doesn't let the full gravity of some of the weightier moments really sink in as deeply as deserved. It also doesn't give Rimalower the full benefit of the frequent big laughs he gets-- and also deserves. I think this story would all benefit from being a little less "dance mix" and more "album." There's little or no fat to trim, though. All the "music" here is great... it would just be nice to get a tiny breather between a few of the sets.
How can the production itself improve? A little bit of lighting design, and a hint at environment would be the only necessary tweaks to give this fascinating little piece a bigger life in a slightly bigger room.
Do you need to be a Patti Fan to appreciate PATTI ISSUES? To get some of the jokes, certainly. But to appreciate this story of a young gay man finding escape, inspiration and survival in music, a diva, a step-dad from-- and a theater in-- Buenos Aires? You don't need to know Patti at all.
PATTI ISSUES, written by Ben Rimalower and directed by Aaron Mark, runs multiple dates at The Duplex Cabaret through December 30th, 2012. Get more information, and purchase tickets, here.