BWW Interviews: Robin de Jesus Plays Ben Rimalower in Patti Issues
For the past year Ben Rimalower has been performing his own autobiographical one-man play, Patti Issues, about his obsession with Patti LuPone and his relationship with his father. And while Rimalower takes his show on the road, two-time Tony nominee Robin de Jesús will take over the role at The Duplex on Sundays throughout October.
"It's most random how it all came about," de Jesús said in a phone interview. The two men have known each other for years and have even tried to work together before. And it was Rimalower himself who contacted de Jesús to find another voice for Patti Issues. While timing was a concern (de Jesus will be appearing in Domesticated at Lincoln Center starting next month), the opportunity to try the experiment was too good to pass up. "It was a great way for Ben to see if the play works with another voice, and it's a great workout for me."
Patti Issues will be de Jesús' first one-man show--except, he adds, for a cabaret act he did in high school. "It's a completely different beast," he says. "It's very vocally challenging. Now, I can talk. I'm a talker. I was voted "most talkative" in my middle-school and high-school yearbook. But when I'm done with these rehearsals, I think, 'that was a feat!'"
De Jesús saw Rimalower in the play three times, and is familiar with how the author portrays himself and every other role in the show. "Naturally, we're two different people, because even me just reading the script is different. That's what he wants. He doesn't want a cookie cut-out of himself. His work stands on its own. It doesn't have to be exactly him."
And when he takes to The Duplex stage as Ben Rimalower, de Jesús' character will be a unique creation, with notable differences from the real person. "Ben is naturally so out there, and I am, too, but in a very different way. Ben and I are very, very different people, and even if I attempt to do what he did, it would still be massively different." Rimalower, of course, actually lived the events in the story, and the relationships depicted onstage were very real for the author. "I think with me, there will be more grey areas as opposed to black and white, because that is Ben's life. He knows what happened, and there are things I don't know in his story...I have not really gone into details of his life, so I have room to make up a bit of my own."
Director Aaron Mark has shared some insights and ideas with de Jesús as they work together to recreate the role from scratch. But Mark also gave de Jesús enough freedom to create his own version of Rimalower--which, he says, lets him play as an actor and opens up the door to future interpretations. "If anyone else wants to do it, or if it's for a regional production, they may not have the luxury of knowing Ben. There has to be room for play."
Mark and de Jesús debated how closely the performer should impersonate Rimalower--or if the New York-raised actor should even try to mimic the speech patterns of the Los Angeles-raised writer. "There are many things that, when Ben says them, are funny, and when I say them are less so," de Jesús says. "Is it worth changing my voice for one punchline? Most of the time, it isn't. My voice finds other punchlines--and ultimately, it's not about punchlines. It's about the story."
As he recreates Ben Rimalower as a character, de Jesús is finding moments in his own life to inspire the right emotions for certain moments in the show. "I do know what it's like to have daddy issues," he muses, noting that his own father recently underwent chemotherapy in his fight against cancer. And while a severe illness can be stressful and terrifying, de Jesús found that the crisis improved the relationship between father and son. "I took him to chemo and it was our bonding time," he says. "I learned about mistakes and assumptions I had...[and about] understanding why the relationship isn't what you want it to be."
"I also know what it is to be obsessed," he adds, "to love musical theatre so much that it goes from love to obsession. It leads to a lot of unhappy people in this business." Love, he says, is healthy, but obsession often is not--and everyone can relate to a life-changing obsession. "There are loads of things in this play that I get. Others are a stretch," he notes. "But that's my job."
And as an actor, de Jesús also understands the play's warts-and-all look at show business. Following his Tony nomination for the 2010 revival of La Cage Aux Folles, he says, he was not happy with his career and was not doing his best as an actor. "It was showing in my work," he recalls. Opting for simplicity, he gave up his apartment and dedicated six months to spending his life savings. "The goal was to give myself a treat," he recalls. "My professional goal was Broadway, but I never took care of the outside life stuff as much as I should have." He turned down job opportunities for the better part of a year, and by the time he was ready to return, he didn't find many offers. "No one was ready for me," he acknowledges. But with Patti Issues, Domesticated and upcoming appearances at 54 Below, he laughs, now everything seems to be happening at once. "I'm delving into creative things," he says. "The only thing now is how to balance it."