Broadway review

From Chloë Sevigny to Gerry, Your Biggest Gay Nightmare: The Brilliant Creations of Drew Droege

The Daily Beast

December 21, 2016

Gerry is a big, glorious, uncompromising, unapologetic gay mess. He’s just arrived at a house in Palm Springs for a wedding. He can’t stand one of the grooms—he’s too dull. Like an ottoman, Gerry says despairingly.

The invite has stipulated that no one should wear “Bright Colors and Bold Patterns,” which is also the title of the 70-minute monologue Drew Droege has written and stars in.

This raucous, witty, and occasionally moving show—directed by actor Michael Urie, at the Barrow Street Theatre until Dec. 30—is driven by the very funny, sometimes furious proclamations of Droege’s Gerry.

He’s the guy at the party you might want to avoid but can’t keep your ears and eyes away from: always going too far, always too loud, always crossing yet another boundary. And yet so funny.

It is Gerry who holds court at the pool with invisible guests around him, including a hot ex-boyfriend whose new boyfriend, Mack, is much younger. There’s someone Gerry can’t stand nearby too. And Gerry can’t stand quite a lot—particularly shy adults. Shyness, he feels, is something children have an excuse for, not grown-ups.

It is Gerry who absolutely must tell everyone about Invisible Child, a Lifetime movie starring Rita Wilson as a mom who has invented an invisible child. Gerry also has much to say about Olympia Dukakis, the genius of Dana Delany in China Beach, and why marriage quality is great, but why—he says—has the desire for it, and to be gay-married, made LGBT people so much less colorful?

Gerry isn’t the nice, sexy, bland gay you’ll see on prime time these days but a colorful, profane, scorched-earth queen who lives to party and dish and bitch, even if it causes a strange mix of joy, fear, and panic in the people around him. Indeed, he lives for that. And soon we get to see the fear and panic at the heart of Gerry too, even if his glancing moments of self-discovery only partially quell the verbal beast.

Droege, 39, is perhaps most famous as the originator of a series of YouTube videos in which he played Chloë Sevigny holding forth on many topics, including “Reading,” “Accessories,” ”Birthdays,” and “Halloween.” These minute-plus videos feature Droege as a perfectly observed, blank-faced Sevigny mulling lists of disparate, fashionable-sounding things—high end meets the deeply artsy meets the utterly absurd.

Reading takes in “the complete works of Angela Lansbury, vineyard maps, and the frustrating, fluctuating population levels of Papua New Guinea.” Halloween encompasses fruit bats, carob, and Mennonites. The accessories video is, says Droege-as-Sevigny, sponsored by Absolut, ballpoint pens, and tuna.

Droege’s snappy cultural radar extends to Gerry, who was frightened, he says of his very fast, substance-addled drive to Palm Springs, that he would “go left instead of right and end up getting lost and kidnapped by some horrible Coachella hippie people who’d chain me to an air mattress and force-feed me Ayahuasca while they ear-raped me with ironically detached synth pop. Ugh, those assholes and their feathered earrings and intentional stench.”

And then he reads the hideously designed invite for the wedding. “‘The parents of Brennan Kyle Newkirk and Joshua Christopher Pierson’—the whitest fucking names on public record—‘request the honor of your presence at their ceremony of marriage on Sept. 24. Please refrain from wearing bright colors or bold patterns.”’ Gerry’s eye roll could win an Olympic medal. “Ain’t that some fucking shit. Happy gay wedding! Did they want us to just show up nude?”

He surveys what we can see of the pool furnishings—colorful, cheap, and loudly cheerful. “I mean, have you seen this house where we’re staying? That den looks like Trina Turk and Betsey Johnson threw up Bacardi Razz and then sold it to Target. No, I LOVE IT—this house is great—I love Trina Turk. That’s my point, honey—more of that, please! And only in Palm Springs could you have an entire kitchen made out of rattan!”

To Mack, he turns to say, “Honey, we celebrate things and make fun of them at the same time. That’s called gay.”

And so, while he is loud and a nightmare guest, Gerry is a loud, proud reminder of gay-as-different, of gay men as different, of LGBTs determined to live and display their difference. “Aren’t you just a little bit scared?” Gerry asks the group. “That all of a sudden, we’re in this race to be normal, whatever that means. Is that really the goal? Is this the endgame—we should all just hope to pair up with some other asshole and get a joint Instagram account so we can all book Triscuits commercials?”

The night I saw the show, Dana Delany herself was there for her namecheck. “I knew she was going to be there at some point, but didn’t know which performance,” Droege said when we spoke by phone the next day. “When she came to see when I first did it a few years ago, she asked if she was mentioned just for that performance. ‘No, you’re in it every night,’ I told her.”

If, as for me, Invisible Child is not yet one of your Lifetime movie favorites, “you simply must see it,” said Droege. “It’s so good, it’s so crazy. It’s how my friends and I talk. We usually find movies, especially women-in-peril movies, and we can’t wait to share them with each other.”

So is Droege like Gerry—is he that much of a hilarious gay tornado, a loud, brash fever dream at every party?

“He’s my dream role,” Droege admitted. “A lot of it is me. It’s a culmination of me at my absolute worst, or biggest and brightest—however you want to look at it. I wanted to write a role of somebody who was a little too much. You don’t get to write that in gay entertainment these days. You get these heroes, or gays who are good people. And that’s great and noble and I understand why, but I wanted to write a big mess and put him in a situation where you had to look at him, where there are literally no other people up there.”

The first Corona beer Gerry drinks is a real one; the rest of the boozing is really limeade and iced tea. “You can’t be too drunk in charge of a 70-minute play,” Droege said. It’s the audience who can electrify his performance even more: If they’re too quiet, for Droege it’s like they’re receiving Gerry too tragically.

Laughing along at his outrageousness is the best rocket fuel, although when Gerry gets more meditative and the audience is still laughing at the wrong moments, Droege can “sometimes have to bring the plane in as a hard crash landing.”

“We all know a person at the party like Gerry,” Droege said. “They’re fun for 10 minutes or so, then they cross a line or say something they shouldn’t, or get way more inebriated than anyone else. I wanted to ask: What happened to that person, what lies behind it? Maybe the wittiest, sassiest person in the room is also hurting the most.”

The unseen figure of Mack could have been that of a callow 20-something, but Droege has made him the sweetest of the invisible troupe. “I do have hope in the future. We all know that young kid who asks: ‘What are you guys talking about? I wasn’t born then.’

“I thought, ‘What if that was me, 15 years ago? In my 20s, I loved hanging out with guys in their 40s and 50s. I desperately wanted to know what they were talking about, what Valley of the Dolls was. Today I love sharing my John Waters film choices with younger guys. I want to share it, not look down on them for not knowing. To me ignorant snobbery is the worst thing: ‘I don’t need to know that, it’s not my thing.’ Gerry kind of has that, and Mack helps him out of it.”

A lot of the show is autobiographical, Droege said, although while Gerry is from Marietta, Georgia, his creator is from Columbia, South Carolina. The stories are mostly true, Droege said. “I really have been the person who has had his heart broken, who has fallen in love with his best friend.”

Like Gerry, Droege celebrates marriage equality but doesn’t think that should mean “we should sit back. In this Trump world we are now trying to live through, it’s more important than ever to be big, bold, loud, and lead with love and compassion. I wrote this before Trump, and I’m using marriage as a metaphor for complacency in the community, like we’ve checked that box and I think, ‘No, we have to fight for that for the rest of our lives.’ That’s part of the struggle, and I say, ‘Embrace the struggle. It’s part of our lives.’ As artists also, it’s important to fight, to have something to push against and be critical of.”

The mainstream embrace of LGBT, while welcome, has meant that “we’ve gone from a swishy gay stereotype to milquetoast characters trying to show gay is normal. Normalizing ‘gay’ is important and huge, but it doesn’t mean we should be ‘normal.’ At least stereotypical gays were fun and colorful in some way. Now the thinking is, ‘We’ll make these gay guys dull and put them in a cubicle 9 to 5.’ Those people are cute and wonderful, but we should be allowed to throw on a wig on every now and then, and quote Designing Women if they want to. Whatever their boat is, they should float it.”

Droege doesn’t think straight people are as wary of LGBT people as LGBT people think they are. “We think we have to sell them a brand of really bland ‘gay’ for them to be OK with it. Most straight people, intelligent ones, who watch intelligent entertainment, don’t have a problem with it. I feel like it’s something we have internalized: ‘Let’s tamp it down.’ With this play I wanted to make it gay people telling gay people to be quiet. It’s not straight people telling gay people to be quiet, it’s us.”

The genesis of the performance came from Droege being invited to a straight wedding with the same ‘no bright colors and bold patterns’ instruction. His friend, the bride, “wanted really pretty pictures, and for everyone there to look muted and not stand out.” In his professional life, Droege has been to castings where producers ask him not to make the character “too gay, or stand out.”

Gays are scared of too-gay characters because “they’re scared of a backlash,” Droege said. “No, someone must be true and if their truth is big and loud, that’s wonderful. I have definitely been in the situation where I have been the one talking way more than anyone else. To be totally honest, I enjoy that. I love holding court. On stage, I think, ‘For the next 70 minutes, everybody is going to be quiet and listen to me. DREAM!’”

Like Gerry in the play, Droege is particularly critical of the sullen party guest who sits and scowls, “who are mad at me for being so loud.” Their silence used to make him feel insecure—or make him think they hated him—and now he wonders why they don’t participate.

“There are other times when I feel the pressure to be the life of the party and I don’t want to be. After a show, I just want to be quiet. I don’t really seek attention. I exorcise that demon enough on stage. People are quite surprised when they meet me. I’m not always telling jokes.”

His love of Sevigny dates back to her role in Boys Don’t Cry (1999). He read an interview where, as he mimics in the videos, the actress talks about her very specific likes. Done as a theater piece, Droege’s first incarnation as Sevigny bombed, but his friend Jim Hanson encouraged him to make the videos, “and they’ve become the biggest thing I’ve done, and they have a life of their own. People send me things about what she is wearing and doing.”

Sevigny has seen the videos too. He ran into her at a party, “and she was really nice about it. It was an awkward moment. She doesn’t really get it. She’s very literal about it. She said, ‘I don’t know those people,’ ‘I don’t wear those clothes,’ ‘I don’t know why you’re having me talk like that.’ That’s fine, she’s very nice about us. She goes back and forth when asked about it. Sometimes she’s the nicest, sometimes she thinks I’m not being the nicest.

“I guess some days she’s flattered, other days it’s the last thing she wants to talk about. She’s been working for 20 years consistently. The last thing she wants to talk about are these YouTube videos some guy has made.”

Droege has always wanted to perform: A very quiet, bookish kid at home, he was “the class clown” at school. Community theater helped conquer any shyness he had. “In my family, I’m the quiet one,” he said. “To this day, they’re sort of amazed I’m the one doing comedy.”

Droege’s family was supportive of his coming out. There was no dramatics around that—he was always focused on other things. He doesn’t have horrible memories of school: “I was popular in high school because I was able to make people laugh. I convinced a lot of people in my hometown that I was possessed by the devil, and that kept people at bay as well.

These people were so scared of the devil, and I would act like a spirit had entered me and run up and down the corridors. I made my friends laugh, but I really terrified lot of people. People would say to us to be careful of the devil worshippers down the street. I’d be like, ‘That’s exactly where I want to be.’”

Next Droege will appear in a production of Charles Busch’s Die, Mommie, Die! He hopes to take the show on the road, and he continues to play Rose in a production of The Golden Girls on stage in Los Angeles. He describes her as “‘the sweet one,’ which is fun, as I never play the sweet one. Rose is the joke, she doesn’t make the joke. The other three are more imitable. Betty White plays her as a real woman. I do it as an insane Betty White on acid.”

Droege will turn 40 next year, which he is excited about. He was “really broken and misunderstood” in his 20s, but his 30s helped him find focus, he said, and feel that his work was recognized. “Part of me felt like I have been 75 ever since I was a teenager, and part of me feels like a teenager.”

Like Gerry, Droege is single and has been for most of his life. Ultimately—and this is where he differs from Gerry in the play—he does want to meet someone special and get married. He’s “very Aquarian,” he said: It’s hard for him to ask anyone for help. He is fiercely independent. “But I want to be open for the right one to come along.”

We pondered whether the play might serve as a useful introductory tool for potential husbands.

Droege laughed. “I’m so emotionally ugly in this play so many times. That’s what I love doing. If some guy fell in love with what I write, that would be really huge. A lot of people look at the character and think, ‘I’m not dealing with that forever, or even one night.’”

Of course, by the end—and this is Droege’s real success—we want to spend quite a lot more time with Gerry.