De Jesus Rises
BY DAVID NOH | Robin de Jesus is still in his 20s, but he is already a Broadway veteran, having literally grown up before our eyes since his big debut in the movie “Camp” in 2003. That film propelled him into an acting career and was followed by his taking over the role of Angel in “Rent”, a Tony-nominated turn in the ground-breaking “In the Heights,” and another Tony nom nod for “La Cage aux Folles.” In all of them he has evinced an instant lovability and deep humanity that make you automatically smile with his every appearance. After taking a lengthy break from the boards, he is happily returning to the stage this fall, in two special projects.
“‘Domesticated’ [with Laurie Metcalf] is the political drama by Bruce Norris opening at the Mitzi Newhouse,” he told me. “I play a really interesting character which, at first, may seem like something you’ve seen me do, but then, again, not. I’m really careful in choosing gay roles — there has to be something special about them, no just ‘the friend’ or whatever. I have just one scene, but I come in and kill. When I first read the script, I thought immediately, ‘I’m booking that,’ and the next day my agent called me and, before she could say anything, I said, ‘“Domesticated,” right?’”
De Jesus is also taking over in Ben Rimalower’s one-man show, “Patti Issues,” at the Duplex, a highly autobiographical account of one gay guy’s journey through life with two constants by his side — his issues with a mercurial father and diva Patti LuPone, who inspires him and lights up his darkest moments.
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“I took a break after ‘La Cage,’ which started off by choice but didn’t really end that way. When I left that show I was down in the dumps emotionally and mentally, and wanted a break. Plus, my dad had cancer — he’s thankfully still with us and healthy — and this had a profound effect on me and I had to prioritize. I now realize that I can have a balance with work and my family, with whom I’ve fallen madly in love with again.
“Ben had invited me several times in to ‘Patti Issues’ in New York, but I couldn’t come, and then I was in LA when he was doing it there and saw it. I loved the fact that it was so specific, so geared to the culture of certain musical theater nerds and the gay community, so awesome. Ben found my number and randomly called me a couple months later, saying ‘We’re looking to bring in someone to take over the show for me, and would like you to read a couple of the monologues for us and see if it sounds good in someone else’s voice?’
“I read for him and it felt weirdly organic, with similarities to me, who knows what it’s like to have obsessions as well as Daddy issues. I told him, ‘Don’t worry, dude. If you feel that it won’t work, I won’t be offended, but he called me back next day and said, ‘We want you.’ So I’ll be able to do ‘Domesticated’ Sunday matinees and this show after that!”
“In the Heights” really put de Jesus on the map professionally, and the actor remembers his mother telling him to forestall entering college if he landed the role: “I went into the audition and I just knew that character from the get-go, basing a lot of my performance on my brother. The night Bill and Hillary Clinton came to see it was probably the best show we ever had on Broadway. Because it was so much about community, every night we would have a non-denominational prayer circle before it started, and we suddenly heard the craziest roar from the audience and a standing ovation. The Clintons had arrived to a reception no other visiting stars ever got, and we were so pumped.
“It was crazier than opening night. They had to be escorted to the stage manager’s office during intermission so they wouldn’t be bothered by everyone, and afterwards they came to meet us. Bill was right there, giving you eye contact and he kept the conversation going. He said he did a lot of work in the Caribbean and referred to Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic as PR and DR. That’s usually the kind of lingo you hear on the street, so I thought Bill getting down was really cool.”
That show, de Jesus soon learned, would be the rarest kind of joyously utopian experience on Broadway for its cast and crew. In “La Cage aux Folles,” “I felt that I started with joy and then lost it, my personal unhappiness poisoned that performance, and, after a while, I was really not proud of it.
“What was funny about Kelsey Grammer is that we think of him as that very proper Frasier, but he’s a fuckin’ dude! Even I was shocked at some of the jokes he told, he’s really real. As a gay man, you get so caught up in politics and there was the fact that he’s a Republican and ‘La Cage’ was during the marriage debate time, too. One assumed he goes along with the whole agenda, so what’s he doing in this show? But I’d brought the prayer circle to this show, as well, and he never missed one of them, and he would always grab on to each one of the Cagelles’ breasts before the show.”
De Jesus grew up in Norwalk, Connecticut, the son of two Puerto Rican factory workers, and has been out since a junior in high school: “My grandmother was amazing, very traditional yet very forward-thinking. She had a brother who was gay and then married with kids, and they came from the mountains in Puerto Rico, where sometimes he would be seen with a friend in the forest. So it was a running joke: ‘You be careful about picking things up, because so and so might be coming around you,’ like dropping the soap, and my mother never realized what they meant.
“My grandmother said, ‘There’s one of everything in every family,’ and I’ve never been a secretive person. When I came out to my mother, her first fear was me getting sick, and although she had gay friends, it was different, me being her son and she thought she had done something wrong.
“But she called up all my relatives and told them and that she was dealing with it. My family has since told me they admired me for not hiding anything, even if they had a hard time with it, and they’ve come a long way. My father said, ‘I don’t want you kissing in front of me,’ and I thought, well, for anyone to be kissing in front of you would be disrespectful. But I brought my boyfriend home for the holidays and they loved him and were really heartbroken, more for him, when we broke up!
“I consider myself a pretty effeminate guy but some of them said, ‘You know, Robin, you’re cool. You’re not like all those flaming, faggoty other queens!’ And I thought, ‘A) Have you really been around them? I’m sure you made that up; B) So what does it matter if they’re true and honest and a good person, and C) Why do you make this about you?’
“I don’t have a partner right now. I may be ready for one again in November when I have a little more time. It’s been nice this time around, being single. I’ve never felt this confident about myself as a lover, never felt I had as much to offer as I do now. Oh yeah, and heartbreak helps –– I’ve had a couple. And now it’s like okay, I’m still not perfect, but definitely worthy.”
De Jesus’ dream roles include Freddie in “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” the title role in “Sunday in the Park with George,” “Orphans,” and maybe “‘Night Mother,’ with him playing a gay son instead of a daughter.
“Although with so much suicide going on, I don’t know,” de Jesus added. “But this will really tell you how crazy my mind works. What about a mash-up of ‘Nine’ and ‘Follies,’ with Gavin Creel as Carla, Ken Paige as the mother, me as Luisa, etc., set on the closing night of Splash, with go-go ghosts?!”
(“Domesticated” begins previews on Oct. 10, with a Nov. 4 opening, at the Mitzi Newhouse Theater, Lincoln Center, 150 W. 65th St.; lct.org. De Jesus appears in “Patti Issues” at the Duplex, Sheridan Sq., 61 Christopher St. at Seventh Ave. So., Sun. evenings from Sep. 8-Oct. 27; theduplex.com.)
If your idea of proper musical fare is seeing a rabbi gunned down by a Nazi in ¾ time, by all means, don’t miss “Soul Doctor,” but for more edifying Jewish fare, you should catch “Still Jewish After All These Years,” with veteran Avi Hoffman at Stage 72 (158 W. 72nd St., through Oct. 23; stage72.com). Hoffman recounts his life in show biz where, as he says, he didn’t quite get what Charles Grodin deemed the absolute key to certain stardom — 27 good breaks. Instead, he’s managed to forge a steady living on stage and screen specializing in Jewish, often Yiddish-speaking roles, which he describes and sings with colorful, virtuosic flavor. I loved his hilarious, spot-on impersonation of fey comic legend Menasha Skulnik, but could have done without the unnecessary, lengthy coda of him doing highlights from the many recent roles he’s done, which played more like a hopeful audition for any casting agents in the audience.
True movie lovers should treat themselves to “Persol: Magnificent Obsessions,” the literally state-of-the-art exhibit at Museum of the Moving Image that focuses on the behind-the-camera work of genius artisans on such cherry-picked films as “Being John Malkovich,” “Frida,” “Catch Me If You Can,” “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” Francis Ford Coppola’s “Dracula,” “Requiem for a Dream,” “12 Monkeys,” and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (36-01 35th Ave. at 37th St., Astoria, through Nov. 11; movingimage.us). Curator Michael Connor has amassed a breathtaking, veritable trove of fascinating memorabilia that really gets you inside the filmmakers’ creative process.
Some of my favorites: Eiko Ishioka’s drop-dead “Dracula” costumes, the actual door to Malkovich’s brain, snapshots of Hunter S. Thompson shaving Johnny Depp’s head, and the brilliant, late costume designer Theadora Van Runkle’s sketches for Faye Dunaway in her fashion forward vehicles “Bonnie and Clyde” and “The Thomas Crown Affair.” It was Dunaway, over Runkle’s objections, who insisted that the “Thomas Crown” skirts be so ridiculously short.