Don't take pictures of Robin De Jesús while he's performing Patti Issues at The Duplex. Before the show he warns, "If I catch you taking a picture I'll say 'Stop, stop, stop! How dare you! Who do you think you are?'" Really, that's the only appropriate response when one is channeling Patti LuPone.
De Jesús seamlessly slips in and out of his Patti voice, which is lucky for him because he is doing double duty with this show: He is also playing Ben Rimalower, the author of Patti Issues, who has taken his show on the road with performances in Glasgow, Berlin, and Miami. De Jesús is holding down the fort at The Duplex, the West Village nightclub where Rimalower premiered Patti Issues last August.
After a brief absence from the New York stage, De Jesús is roaring back this fall with multiple projects, including the world premiere of Domesticated, written by Bruce Norris (Pulitzer Prize winner for Clybourne Park) and starring Jeff Goldblum and Laurie Metcalf at Lincoln Center Theater. TheaterMania spoke with him about his upcoming year and the joys of obsessing over La LuPone.
Robin De Jesús…Tell me about your Patti Issues.
Yes, my Patti Issues... I feel like I'm in therapy. Patti Issues is awesome. It's a seventy-minute monologue based on Ben Rimalower's life. It's the story of his relationship with his estranged father, who was a very unhealthy man. That relationship runs parallel to his obsession with Patti LuPone. The catalyst for his relationship falling apart with his dad is his father coming out of the closet. It was the eighties, which was a very scary time period to be gay, especially if you're a middle-aged man with a wife and kids. As a kid, it's a rough time dealing with daddy being crazy. Luckily, Patti LuPone comes along like a knight in shining armor and saves Ben's life.
What's your relationship with Patti LuPone?
I remember the moment when I discovered who Patti LuPone was. I went to a random music store and there was an Andrew Lloyd Webber CD: The Very Best Of Andrew Lloyd Webber. It had "High Flying Adored" on it with Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin. Now, because I didn't know who either of them was, I assumed Mandy was playing Evita.
Like Mandy Moore...
Exactly! I remember going to school and being like, "Oh my God, Mandy Patinkin is amazing as Evita!" Then my friend told me that Mandy Patinkin is a man. So that's when I learned who Patti LuPone was. I never got to fully experience her until I was an adult and lived in New York City. The first thing I ever saw her in was Sweeney Todd. I remember thinking she was so great in that. There's this exaggerated version of Patti that exists in people's minds. I felt like she debunked all of that. It was such a great, nuanced performance. She was playing a tuba, dude.
Broadway is a small community. Have you met her?
I had the pleasure of meeting her when she came to see La Cage aux Folles. We knew she was in the audience and all the Cagelles were freaking out. They were caking their faces extra hard because Patti was there. Everyone was so excited. We had all read the memoir. I remember walking up and down Eighth and Ninth Avenues reading Patti LuPone's memoir and listening to Jay Z. For whatever reason, they just worked together for me.
Does it feel weird to play someone you know onstage?
Ben and the director, Aaron Mark, were adamant that this performance was not be a replica of Ben's performance. They left room for me to play. Now, I did feel a lot of pressure to better my Patti accent. I had never worked on that before.
How did you do that?
It's about the sound of the voice for me. I spent a lot of time watching interviews and video clips. There was one interview where she went on Graham Norton, and it was just the audio. That was amazing because I didn't have the distraction of having to watch her mouth move. For me, the way her mouth moves doesn't make sense with the sound that comes out. It totally defies physics.
A lot of the play is about the author's biological father behaving badly. Are gay men particularly susceptible to that world?
This actually relates to the other play I'm doing [Domesticated]. A lot of it has to do with men and their crazy lifestyles. People say things like, "All gay men are sluts." That's not true! I know plenty of gay men who lead wonderful safe healthy monogamous relationships. Some even lead wonderful healthy safe polygamous relationships! But I think the misbehavior has less to do with being gay and more to do with being a man. Not that I'm excusing this. I just think men are generally hornier than women.
Is that what Domesticated is about?
It's masked as a political drama, but it's really more of a gender drama, I think. It's the story of a politician who gets caught in a sex scandal. It's about what it does to his family, but more importantly it's about men and women and their understandings of one another. We have these assumptions and we sign these contracts, these commitments in life when we really don't know what we're signing on for.
You're billed as "transsexual." Can you talk about that role?
Hahahahaha...yes. It's so funny. We've had a discussion as to whether naming the character "transsexual" is reductive or rude. We had this debate the other day in rehearsal. We were thinking about giving the character a name. Normally I would be absolutely for it, but if you see the play, it makes sense that this character doesn't have a name.
You're playing a supporting role in Domesticated, but Patti Issues is just you on stage. Have you ever done something like this?
I'm doing my own cabaret at 54 Below [November 24 & 25 at 9:30PM]. We're putting that together right now. I'm super excited about it, and I feel like Patti Issues has prepared me for that. A couple years ago, when I was in In the Heights, I was on Accutane for my acne. My voice stopped phonating in certain parts. It was really scary, and it took two years to find out what was going on. We think that as a result of the Accutane I had scar tissue built up on my vocal chords. I took some time off and got my vocals back. I'm excited to finally come back to this thing I've missed out on for so long.