John Houseman once said that Patti LuPone exudes the “smell of the gallows,” but for one gay Jewish boy from Los Angeles, the star was nothing less than a lifeline. LuPone, famed for playing blistering, brutal Broadway divas, became an obsession for theater artist Ben Rimalower when the teen was struggling with his parents’ divorce, his father’s traumatic coming out, and his own coming of age.
In “Patti Issues,” directed by Aaron Mark, Rimalower charts a rocky, bi-coastal, but ultimately exultant journey from LuPone fan to LuPone friend and collaborator.
The one-man show, which has been extended six times, now runs through Aug. 15 in the West Village. David Rooney of The New York Times quoted “Evita” in trumpeting that the hour-long play “rides an infectious rainbow high.”
Rimalower has directed numerous Off-Broadway shows, from “Snoopy!” (starring Sutton Foster) to “Sodom the Musical.” After creating and directing “Leslie Kritzer is Patti LuPone at Les Mouches,” he produced the CD, “Patti LuPone at Les Mouches,” based on archival tapes of the singer’s legendary midnight performances at the Chelsea night club.
Rimalower’s father, who is an obstetrician, had moved the family from New York to California to escape from his immigrant parents’ crushing expectations. But by the time Rimalower was 9, his father was caught having sex with men, and the parents split up. As his father grew increasingly unstable and even suicidal, Rimalower and his sister were adopted by their stepfather. Rimalower kept sane by listening to LuPone’s recordings and attending her concerts.
“Patti plays powerful, violent, and volatile characters,” Rimalower told The Jewish Week. He recalls the “vicarious power” that he felt while listening to her in what he described as “cannibalizing roles” like Mrs. Lovett (who assists Sweeney Todd in baking corpses into pies), Gypsy Rose Lee (who devours her children’s souls) and Eva Peron (who excoriates the oligarchs of Argentina).
“She doesn’t play the victim,” Rimalower noted. “She distracted me from my father slitting his wrists in the next room.” Her music, he said, helped him to deal with his own “immense struggle” to come out of the closet but escape from the shadow of his father. He called LuPone a “gay icon,” like Madonna and Barbra Streisand.
Even as he and LuPone have become friends, his obsession has not ebbed. His worship of her, he explained, is “like a religion — it’s part of my identity, like being a Mets or Yankees fan. It’s intrinsic to my experience of the world.”
“Patti Issues” runs through Aug. 15 at The Duplex Cabaret Theatre, 61 Christopher St. Performances are typically on Saturdays at 9:30 p.m. until mid-July, when they switch to Thursday nights at the same time. For tickets, $20 ($25 at the door), call (800) 838-3006 or visit pattiissues.brownpapertickets.com.