The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me to make Melbourne debut
The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me is one of the most celebrated plays in gay culture. Rachel Cook talks to actor James Wright and producer Les Solomon about their production, which is playing in Melbourne this month.
How do you write a timeless play? You can throw in some age old themes, sure, but the underlying premise must hold much more than that. David Drake’s The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me has held audience’s attention for over two decades. It has been performed over 100 hundred times worldwide, won an OBIE and been made into a film. It sold out its season at this year’s Mardi Gras and is about to see yet another incarnation at The Butterfly Club in Melbourne.
Drake wrote the play in the early 1990s as a twenty-something actor and activist and member of ACT UP. He had begun writing autobiographical monologues as a response to his experiences of the AIDS crisis. These monologues eventually became The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me and the show became one of the longest-running one-man shows Off-Broadway.
Last year saw the 20th anniversary of the play where 10 actors, alongside Drake, performed it as part of the Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS event in New York. Previously the play has been performed as a one-hander, but with this production of the play it will be a two-hander starring James Wright (Once in Royal David’s City - Belvoir St Theatre) and Ben Hudson (The Addams Family – musical).
[Image] James Wright in The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me.
Wright has recently returned from New York where he met with the playwright:
“I met David Drake in New York a few months after the Sydney season and he really wanted to know how we split up the monologues – as you would when you've written something so complex and sophisticated.
“It’s the first time it’s ever been done full-length with two actors. Reviews have been very positive in regard to performing it with two actors and many see it as a really interesting take that brings out even more from the piece.”
The play moves through the time of the Stonewall riots in 1969, when Drake was six years old. We follow him through his teens and first sexual experiences to the night he saw Larry Kramer’s seminal play, The Normal Heart, in 1985, when he was 22 years old.
The Normal Heart took an unflinching look at the HIV/AIDS crisis and as many critics have noted over the years, the work was well ahead of its time. It was made into a HBO film of the same name released this year starring Mark Ruffalo and Julia Roberts.
It was this play that inspired the title of Drake’s work.
Wright feels the renewed fascination in The Normal Heart and the fact that The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me audiences may have seen the HBO version will only add to the experience.
“Well [the HBO production] of The Normal Heart [has] been released since the Sydney season and unfortunately I've never seen a production of it so it was fascinating to see the film version as I know the impact it had on David and so many who've seen it. I think understanding that will endow my performance with more truth in Melbourne.”
And it is the truth of the play that has ensured its ongoing impact. While 20 years has passed since it was written, Wright feels it still strongly resonates with today’s audiences.
“[While] it playfully examines the vanity and image-obsession of the gym culture and the cruising/clubbing lifestyle [of the time], one scene in particular perfectly relates to Grindr, but it also highlights the homophobia that still exists in modern society and of course the references to the HIV/AIDS crisis of the 90s are still prevalent considering cases of the disease have been on the rise.”
For the play’s producer, Les Solomon, the play also rings true because it pulls no punches:
“It appeals because it addresses nearly forty years of gay history from a boy coming out, through to the whole gym and gay bar culture, to the AIDS epidemic and now to gay marriage. It actually moves the story forward to a very positive and life affirming conclusion. It’s also a very, very funny and often risqué play.”
Solomon first saw the play in the mid-nineties in New York and his interest stuck. After hearing that Drake had put together a ten person version of the show to celebrate its 20th anniversary last year he felt it was time for Australian audiences to see it again. There was also the fact that Drake has rewritten the ending:
“David has rewritten the end of the play to bring it up to date and this new ending is the first time it has been performed,” Solomon said.
Audiences will also find this production has been finely tuned to suit Australian sensibilities.
“A lot of the references in the play, especially the political ones, are very American,” Solomon said.
“So we needed to adapt that slightly, but the rewriting has made this version more accessible to a local audience and we have changed or edited a few very specific political references that have no local significance.”
In a year that has seen the first International AIDS Conference in Australia it is fair to say younger LGBTIQ people may have heard stories about that dark time during the height of the epidemic that they may not have heard before. Solomon hopes this play will further their understanding of those times and also recognise the positives that came from that experience.
“We want audiences to be moved, but also come away with a positive feeling about gay history and gay experiences,” Solomon said.
“The play even at its darker moments never strays far from humour. It is a universal masterpiece that will always be with us.”
[Top image] James Wright and Ben Hudson
The Night That Larry Kramer Kissed Me, August 12 - 17, The Butterfly Club Carson Place (off Lt Collins Street Melbourne) thebutterflyclub.com