It is quite appropriate that Ben Rimalower’s one-man play is playing The Duplex stage: Patti Issues may not technically be a musical or a cabaret, but it is a play about music, and about singers, and about showbiz and theater and the healing power the arts can have on emotional wounds. It is a story about musical theater fans for musical theater fans, and a cabaret venue is the perfect space for the show.
Rimalower, it would seem, discovered the vocal prowess of Patti LuPone as a child, and as his family fell apart, he escaped into the high belting and dramatic intensity of her singing, substituting her strength for his father’s weakness. When he moved to New York City, determined to get involved in show business, he had the opportunity to work with his idol...but then had to face the unpleasant truths about a cutthroat, competitive industry, and learned both the upsides and downsides of working with divas.
But for all that, Patti Issues is a comedy. A very fierce comedy. Because as heartbreaking as Rimalower’s story can be at times, he tells it with enough dry wit and snarky commentary to keep it from teetering into any kind of pity party or melodrama. Clear-eyed and insightful, Rimalower finds humor in everything from his father’s awkward emergence from the closet to the threat of a lawsuit by the person he admires most.
And, yes, there is plenty of good old-fashioned dishy gossip, and names are dropped frequently. Rimalower pulls no punches in his storytelling, depicting everyone—himself included—with warts and all. But to his great credit, and to the show’s strength, no one is depicted as all good or all bad—only as flawed people doing their best in a challenging world.
And perhaps that’s what makes Patti Issues so effective, and that’s why The Duplex run has been extended: Setting aside the backstage gossip, this is simply the story of a fan of music and musicals doing his damndest to make it in the business. It’s the story of a son with two very different fathers, one of whom betrays his child over and over in some of the cruelest ways imaginable. (Rimalower’s matter-of-fact retelling of these anecdotes make them that much more chilling: One can almost hear how hard he is working not to care, all these years later.) It’s the story of the devotee of a legendary artist discovering the human being beneath the celebrity—and not always liking what he sees there. It is a story that can speak to just about anyone who has had a dream and then had to struggle to accomplish it. Both viciously funny and gently poignant, it is a damn fine way to spend an evening immersed in the world beyond the Broadway footlights.