Robin De Jesús is no stranger to a healthy obsession or two. The 29-year-old actor insists that a fervent nature is just as critical to a successful career in the performing arts as raw talent and blind ambition.
“Only someone who is obsessed with [succeeding in the industry] would be willing to think less of themselves and put themselves through the misery of auditioning and being told 'No' all the time," the two-time Tony Award nominee (for 2008’s “In The Heights” and the 2010 revival of “La Cage aux Folles”) quips with a laugh. "It can be incredibly demeaning and belittling.”
De Jesús lists the work of composer Stephen Sondheim and Broadway diva Bernadette Peters as two of his most ardent fixations, but interestingly, it's Peters's archrival Patti LuPone that he references most in his latest project. For the month of October, the actor is stepping in for playwright and star Ben Rimalower in “Patti Issues,” the acclaimed off-Off-Broadway solo show currently playing at The Duplex in New York. Directed by Aaron Mark, “Patti Issues” pairs a gripping exploration of Rimalower's unstable relationship with his father, who came out of the closet when Rimalower was just 8 years old, with quirky anecdotes about the openly gay writer-star's worship of all things LuPone.
“Patti Issues” nabbed MAC and Bistro awards as well as sterling reviews from The New York Times, Time Out New York and other media outlets last year (check out HuffPost Gay Voices' take on the show here). Still, it's a seemingly unusual choice for De Jesús, who is best known for his aforementioned Broadway stints as well as a supporting turn in 2003’s indie musical movie “Camp.”
The actor seems to acknowledge this, calling his “Patti Issues” run “an experiment” given that the piece is so rooted in the specifics of Rimalower’s adolescence and young adulthood. Nonetheless, De Jesús says the explicitly autobiographical show has universal themes at its core: “Everybody’s had daddy issues. I don’t know anyone who hasn’t had issues with their parents before.”
Fans of the show won't be disappointed by Rimalower's successor. De Jesús gives the darker moments of "Patti Issues" a raw, emotional edge and is particularly eloquent during a scene in which he, as Rimalower, recalls his paternal family's rejection once he is adopted by his stepfather. Equally stirring is De Jesús's take on an unplanned reunion between Rimalower and his biological father at a 2008 performance of "Gypsy," in which LuPone starred. (Rimalower is similarly impressed, saying the "deeply gifted" De Jesús "makes the journey of the show feel more whole, like there's more wisdom and richness in the ending than maybe when I played it.")
The show's resonance with the gay community certainly isn't lost on De Jesús, who says incorporating LGBT-relevant themes into his work is "very important" to him as an out actor. Following his "Patti Issues" stint, he'll be seen opposite Laurie Metcalf and Jeff Goldblum in Bruce Norris's "Domesticated" at New York's Lincoln Center in a transgender role reportedly billed in the play's script only as "transsexual." In May, he took part in an ensemble performance of "The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me," about a gay man's coming-of-age during the HIV/AIDS crisis.
"For a while, everyone wanted to see me for drag queen roles or really effeminate, over-the-top gay characters who were there only for laughs," he says. "I kept running from all of those parts, until I had an epiphany: most straight actors play straight characters their whole lives, and no one ever says to them, 'Oh, you can only play straight -- you're a horrible actor.'"
He continues, "I'm confident enough to say I can portray a heterosexual character well, but that being said, who better to tell our story than someone who is part of this community, and someone who can choose gay roles responsibly?"
The experience of "Patti Issues" is certainly rubbing off on De Jesús, who says he'd be open to taking the show on the road with Rimalower. He's also at work on a cabaret act titled "Crush & Crushed," which is set to play New York's 54 Below on Nov. 24 and 25. Promising a night of pop, soul, Broadway and Spanish tunes, De Jesús says audiences shouldn't be surprised if his set includes a LuPone standard, albeit in a heavily revised form.
"I read Patti LuPone: A Memoir while listening to Jay-Z, and I found that their lives were actually quite parallel to one another, so we're thinking of doing a mash-up," he says. "I just think there's something so incredibly ridiculous and wonderful about that idea."
Robin De Jesús is Ben Rimalower in "Patti Issues" at The Duplex in New York on Oct. 13, 20 and 27. Check here for more information.