HARVEY FIERSTEIN: Fanfares, Fandangos and Flatbush Flap-draggin'

"That's from Megan Terry's play The Pioneer that she wrote for me. I played a Long Island mother teaching her daughter how to get a man. That's Harvey Tavel and me as Maria Callas and Kirsten Flagstad singing 'I'll Build a Stairway to Paradise' -- one of the great moments of Off-Off-Broadway. That's a review from a Swedish newspaper of my play Flatbush Tosca. I'm still waiting to have it translated, but it must have been good or he wouldn't have sent it to me. This is from Ronald Tavel's Kitchenette. They made me glue on a mustache so I'd stop putting on as much makeup as the girls had on. This makeup was first designed for the Actors Studio when I was brought there to lecture. Do you know I'm the only person ever to be banned from the Actors Studio? Well, it was a little tasteless to do Susan Strasberg imitations for Lee Strasberg...."

Harvey Fierstein is showing me his scrap book and providing a running commentary on his career as one of the offest of Off-Off-Broadway personalities. He has written plays with titles like Freaky Pussy, a T-Room Musical and Cannibal Woman Tartare (formerly subtitled "She Eats It Raw"), and he has acted in over 60 roles in the last six years, a good many of them in drag. Until a time conflict forced him to withdraw, he was scheduled to play Anita Bryant in the recent new York premiere of Ronald Tavel's The Ovens of Anita O.J. Despite all this -- or perhaps because of it -- the 25-year-old actor/playwright is actually a very sweet Jewish boy from Brooklyn. I met him a couple of years ago when he was starring in the Boston production of Robert Patrick's The Haunted Host and again later when he was appearing in an ill-fated revival of Tom Eyen's The dirtiest Show in Town. Now we're sitting, on a chilly Saturday, in the deserted bleachers at the world-famous La Mama theatre, where Harvey is appearing in his latest play The International Stud.

While he chain-smokes Benson and Hedges 100s and munches a lunch (breakfast?) of potato chips and Pepsi Light, I try to extract coherent biography. It's not easy. The onslaught of entertaining anecdotes and one-liners tends to scramble chronology, and some of his stories sound suspiciously embellished. For instance, explaining the origin of his voice (a unique, obviously damaged Tallulah-esque rasp), he once told me, "I was in a play called Xircus, The Private Life of Jesus Christ and had to do a five-page monologue over a recording of Kate Smith singing 'God Bless America' played at top volume over eight-foot speakers. The director refused to turn down the volume -- and I wanted every word heard!"

But I manage to sift out some salient facts. Harvey fell in love with the theatre at age 12 while at an art high school, came out at 13 and started hanging around the 82 Club (an East Village bar), got in a dress at 14. He began to buy Backstage and Show Business, auditioned for Andy Warhol's Pork at La Mama, "got cast and became a Warhol girl. I did a few videotapes for him -- since I was 250 pounds of gorgeousness, obviously I did a lot of Ethel Merman imitations. Then they were going to start on this movie called Heat, and Paul Morrissey told me there was a great role as a dyke for me. So I locked myself in the house and went on a fruit diet and lost 80 pounds in two months so I'd be gorgeous for the film. I showed up at the Factory, and they looked and me and said -- quite sweetly -- 'The only thing you had going for you was that you were a big, fat freak.' They replaced me with Pat Ast."

He was devastated, but not for long. He plunged into a long whirlwind of activity, working with many of the mainstays of the Theatre of the Ridiculous in productions either picked or written specifically for him: H.M. Koutoukas's Christopher at Sheridan Square, Donald Brooks's all-male Trojan Women, John Vaccaro's Persia (A Desert Cheapie), Jackie Curtis's Amerika Cleopatra, Ron Tavel's How Jackie Kennedy Became Queen of Greece, his own In Search of the Cobra Jewels. Were all of these women's roles? "Some of them. A lot of them I played as women -- how the audience took it, I never asked." Why this interest in women's roles? "Have you seen men's roles? They are so boring. They're all I-wanna-get-laid, I-wanna-shoot-up, I- wanna-this, I wanna-that. The women get the 'Poor Pearl' roles. Women get the last bow and the nicer clothes and the softer moments. A lot of women's roles are underwritten so there's more to play with; you have to bring your own strength to them, while men's roles are often so overwritten you can't put anything in them."

There's something I'm trying to get him to talk about, maybe what drag means to him. "I have no definition for what it means to me, because it's as special as being onstage." He pauses thoughtfully. "I don't know, there's a quality in a way that an audience reacts to me when I do what I do best that only comes when I'm playing something interesting. And if I have to completely change myself physically into a 40-year-old woman or 20-year-old woman, whatever -- already it's interesting. Then you start on the character. The reason why women don't like women's roles is that they're usually cast because they look the part, and there goes half the interest. I wish the great actresses would -- like Joanne Woodward, I'd love to play her wife and her play my husband, or Geraldine Fitzgerald. If they would let us be free -- I mean, the stage is magic anyway, and the audience will accept anything you give them if it's good!"

What kind of reaction has he gotten from feminists? "Well, Freaky Pussy got a lot of negative response because of the title and because of the ad, which was a vagina with me in the middle of it. In general, they feel that when a man plays a woman he's parodying them, but when I play a woman I play the role as straight and as heartfelt as I try to play men. And I would never put down women in my plays. I put down heterosexuals, but out of defense. Things are changing, though, and the women are less uptight. And of course if plays change, then there will be no need for me to play the woman's role."

We go off on a tangent about gay theatre ("Experimental theatres like La Mama, American Place, the Public, Circle Rep do much too little gay theatre, though there are faggots all over those places") and playwrights (Maria Irene Fornes, whose latest work is the highly acclaimed Fefu and Her Friends, is Harvey's favorite: "Her language is like that real thin crystal that, when you pour a drink, you're afraid the glass will crush from the weight of the liquor").

I remember a remark Harvey had made about a certain gay playwright's newest script being anti-gay and ask him to elaborate on that. "When I see a play by a writer I know is gay and it has a gay character, the first thing I want to know is: is that character seen as the norm, or at least through a gay perspective? If it's not, I immediately turn off. The second thing I want to know is, since the gay character is always somehow tragic (which is fine), is his tragedy the fact that he's gay? If that's true, I don't want to know it -- that gets me angry, too. The last thing is if there are two gay characters onstage and they're tearing each other to shreds with bitchy remarks or whatever, I don't want to hear it. Because that's a heterosexual view of a homosexual."

Fortunately, The International Stud stands up to Harvey's strict criteria. A radical departure from the campy travesties of old (Freaky Pussy, for instance, is a parody of Streetcar Named Desire set in a subway toilet), Stud centers on the relationship between Arnold, a drag performer who's tough-talking "Virginia Hamm" dressed up but otherwise a regular Joe; and Ed, a schoolteacher with Marlboro Man looks for whom bisexuality is another way of staying in the closet. The play's five scenes (three of which are monologues) are connected by the appearance of chanteuse "Helen Morgan," who sings the kind of torch songs that have filled Arnold's head since childhood with promises of romantic love and whimsical kisses.

The play really does traffic in extreme sentimentality; there is at times a he-said-he-loved-me-how-come-he-don't desperation that is embarrassingly naive. But it is redeemed -- or at least it was in its showcase production at La Mama -- by Harvey's performance, which was stripped to such raw vulnerability that it made the play an intensely private, painful, even courageous act of sharing. He captured the bewilderment of discovering that knowing all the cliches about love's pain doesn't make you immune from them. "In my life I have slept with more men than are named or numbered in the Bible," says Arnold without bitterness. "But in all those bedrooms, bathrooms, backrooms and balconies not once has someone said, 'Arnold, I love you,' that I could believe. And I ask myself, 'Do you really care?' and the only honest answer I can give myself is, yes, I care. I care. I care a great deal. But not enough...."

There is much to admire about The International Stud: the well-observed, sympathetic portrait of bisexual Ed; Arnold's refreshing lack of pathos or self-pity as the updated Lady Bright ("There are easier things in this life than being a drag queen," he chirps, "but try as I may I just can't walk in flats!"); the incisive, though cheerfully ambivalent commentary on the quick-sex backroom bars; and the witty writing, at its best both epigrammatic ("An ugly person who goes after a pretty person gets nothing but trouble, but a pretty person who goes after an ugly person gets at least cab fare") and disarmingly accurate. "I like that one sneaked kiss in the elevator on the way to a man's apartment. I like the apologies he makes for the mess the place is in. I dig the dainty tour and arty conversation while he's dimming the lights and pouring the drinks. I like never finishing those drinks."

After seeing the show, I wait backstage while Harvey greets friends and fans, and then we go out together -- where else but to the Stud, the West Village bar for which the play is named? I like the show much more than I let on to Harvey; instead, we talk about technical details and so on. Discussing the play, he uses the names of the real people it was written about. He tells me about the two other plays that will eventually make, with Stud, a trilogy, both also based on love affairs in his past. "I don't know if this is exhibitionism or what, but I figure if it happens to me, it happens to most people.

"All right, wait a minute," says Harvey, stopping about a block from the bar. "The glasses come off here." Looking in a restaurant window, he combs his hair with his fingers, the worldly artiste becoming now the shy gay man heading for the bar. Awkward pause. "Well," he quips, "I didn't want to be recognized on the street!"

The Advocate, June 14, 1978