The theatrical run of HOT KEYS, Jeff Weiss’ aptly titled downtown production, was at once the strangest and most gratifying theatre experience of my life. Curtain went up at midnight and came down at 3am, I spent most of my time onstage oiled up and half naked, but it was the best acting work I’d ever done. Jeff forced me to forget many of the weird acting habits and pretensions I’d collected at NYU while studying my ‘craft..’ Before the first performance, he blazed up the fattest spliff I’d ever seen and nonchalantly said, ‘just jump off the mountain and see what happens.’ I jumped off the mountain for three months with that show.
It took me much longer than three months to appreciate how unique and bizarre this lower east side theatre world was. On one of the first weekends, as I left PS 122 in the early morning hours after a late night show, I was accosted by a short, chubby little gay dude in khakis and a blue button down.
Great, I thought, another creepy dude with money who thinks I’m some insatiable Chelsea bottom.
‘Hey, DUDE,’ I responded.
I probably made the ‘Dude’ a little more staccato and sharp than it had to be. I had gotten in the habit of appending a ‘dude’ or ‘man’ to my same-sex Manhattan greetings as a not-so-subtle way of spiking the Village gaydar with a ‘HETERO’ blast. Since I looked…well…gay, it was all I had.
“Uh, listen,” Gay George Costanza stammered, “I’m doing this play ‘Tartuffe’ in a couple of months and I think you’d be great to play the Prince.”
Really? The Prince?
That’s what my career needed as a jump start – the opportunity to play a piss-ant part for no money in some black box theatre on the 4th floor of a walk-up in Greenwich Village. The amount of classical off-off Broadway shows in the city was astounding. It wouldn’t surprise me if this show was being put on in… shiver… Brooklyn. The only thing that makes my skin crawl more than Brooklyn is the idea of doing theatre in Brooklyn. You mean I can have all the filth and danger of a big city with all the inconvenience of a shitty suburb!? Yay!
Luckily, I had an out…
“Well, I’m still in school right now so I can’t really do anything else. This show is an exception because it plays so late.”
“Okay, well my name is David Saint, and I’m a fan of your work. Maybe some day in the future we can work together. Good luck.”
And then he walked away.
Very polite, very professional, I thought. Hmmmm, I guess he DIDN’T want to sleep with me… am I losing my looks?
Two months later, I was walking in Times Square and saw ‘Tartuffe’ on the marquee of a premiere Broadway theatre. It was being directed by ‘David Saint. It turns out David Saint was, and is, a huge theatre director. My douchey homophobia, or whatever it was, ruined my chances to do a quality show on the Great White Way.
Welcome to the strange, wide world of Jeff Weiss. Constantly surrounded by fireflies, vagabonds, trannys, and the HIV underworld, Jeff also garnered attention from an upscale, uptown audience that would leave its west side floor-throughs and gamely hang out in a crowded, makeshift theatre with no air conditioning to witness his newest concoction of the crazy and the carnal.
The number of actors who got their big break with Jeff and/or worked with him on his “Hot Keys” series was astounding: Kevin Kline, Frank Langella, Allison janney, Victor Garber, Kristen Johnston, Ken Leong, the list goes on and on. As a matter of fact, the first guy who ever played the Billy character was none other than the freaky and talented Willem DaFoe. Jeff’s following never failed to amaze me.
Rumors persisted that Jeff was a pathological liar and, indeed, some of his stories seemed, if not implausible, constructed entirely for entertainment value. In some ways, he reminded me of the Albert Finney character in ‘Big Fish.’ Jeff loved a good-old fashioned yarn and maybe sometimes he took out some of his more colorful spools. A couple of New York actors were adamant about Jeff’s relationship with the truth and would vehemently advocate for their positions like we were debating a matter of extreme national security. For me, the veracity of his stories got cleared up during my last week of ‘Hot Keys.’
One of the more popular characters in “Hot Keys” was a Finnish gymnast named Bjorn who went around sleeping with strangers and then murdering them. Jeff told me, during one basement rehearsal, that the first half of the storyline was true: that he used to go uptown, pick up rich, married suits, pound their buttholes into jelly for a weekend and then retreat south of 14th Street without fear of detection or repercussions. “Bjorn” was his nom de guerre.
It was a perfect plan, Jeff said, and in his defense, he was a handsome guy. He looked a little like Sir Laurence Olivier with a crack problem. His double life lasted for years, he boasted, until he started getting a little more famous and doing Broadway shows. He would exit the stage door some nights and there would be some forgotten Bjorn conquest waiting for him, slack-jawed and confused. I imagined some poor guy scouring uptown gay bars, looking for ‘A guy… about yay tall… named Bjorn?” only to find him after a show. Off-handedly, Jeff declared this happened on several occasions.
Yeah, right! Cute story though.
As I continued doing shows with Jeff, he continued to tell me even more outrageous stories. At one point he had a brief love affair with Richard Gere when Gere was working at the Pyramid club on Manhattan’s lower east side. Then, one night during his days at the Russian-Turkish baths when they were still a veritable revolving door for gay orgies, the famous dancer Rudolph Nureyev was getting his nightly ass pounding from a group of sycophantic queens when things got a little…intense…and Nureyev had to call a halt to the activities.
With Nureyev’s age, ill health, and penchant for fat cock, Jeff explained, he had become horribly incontinent. Ol’ Rudy had stopped the anal action to make a dainty dash for the bathroom. Jeff meticulously described the scene: Nureyev on tiptoes, floating down a dank, sparsely lit hallway, rivulets of Rudy doodie dancing down his hammys… all in stark contrast to the pink ballet slippers cinching up his feet.
Ballet slippers?! C’mon! Like he would wear his work shoes during a Turkish bath gangbang!!! Jeff was taking a little too much poetic license with that absurd detail. Nureyev did his final performances with a generous butt plug and a diaper underneath his tights, Jeff contended. This wasn’t speculation…he knew. The diaper, he continued, would have to be changed throughout the night by a young Latin assistant waiting in the wings of the Met.
Jeff and his Big Fish stories. They made me laugh, but what a goofball he was with those lies! If I just accepted him as a creator of tall tales, I knew I’d be okay with all the crap he said.
On the last weekend of Hot Keys, I was heading home to my girlfriend on East 13th Street after a particularly long show that ran until almost 4am. Once again, a well-groomed gentleman was waiting for me outside the entrance on 1st Avenue. At least this gay stalker was attractive. I couldn’t help but think ‘I must look goooood!’
“Excuse me,” he said.
“What’s up, dude?” I responded. Bam. Dude was extra straight. Like an arrow.
“I have a question to ask you… but I’m a little embarrassed by it to be honest,” he said.
“No, it’s cool – I’m straight – but don’t worry about it.”
“Oh, sorry, no, it’s not about you, it’s about Jeff.”
My curiosity was officially piqued.
“Well, he’s probably still upstairs. You can go up there and ask him whatever you want,” I said.
“Oh, no, I don’t think I can….”
He looked down at his feet and then around in the cold night. Clearly, he was a little flummoxed. If you want someone to set you up on a date with Jeff, I thought, I’m probably not your guy. I took his silence as my cue to leave, so I hitched my backpack further up on my shoulder and said, “Well, I’ll see around.”
I took 3 or 4 steps until the following sentence stopped me in my tracks:
“I think I slept with him about 8 years ago, but he told me his name was Bjorn.”
I froze like a deer hearing the crinkle of Autumn leaves under the boots of a hunter. What the fuck?!? Now I was the one who had no idea what to say. I stopped and gawked at him, my silent invitation to elaborate.
“I met him by my place on the upper East side and he told me his name was Bjorn and he spoke with this crazy accent.”
“How did you find out he was here tonight?” I asked. “Is that why you came down, to confront him?”
Again, the man looked down, seemingly flustered.
“No, I came here with a friend. I had no idea who Jeff Weiss was. And then I saw him, and, it was so….”
The man’s voice quivered a bit and then trailed off. By way of explanation, he shrugged and forced a tight smile. When he suppinated his palms during the shrug, the light from the lamp post above caught the gold in his wedding ring and it glinted against the darkness before the dawn.
I did everything in my power not to erupt in raucous laughter until we parted ways. We stood that way for a few more awkward moments, the wind from the 6 Train coming up through the street-level subway vents in alternate bursts of hot and cold. Santa Claus IS real, I thought.
I’m not sure what he wanted from me. Maybe he wanted me to say something that would let him know it was okay or maybe he knew that, in me, he found the one person on the planet to whom he could admit this clandestine Finnish affair. Then I saw the doubt in his eyes and I realized his reasons were more practical. He just wanted confirmation.
“It’s him… isn’t it?”
I wanted to tell this stranger not to take it personally – that Jeff had a partner who saved his life, that Jeff could never leave this man, and that his uptown vision quests were just a way to keep his penis in the game, as his head and his heart were committed to one man and one man alone. I wanted to tell him that he wasn’t the first guy to wait after a show abashed and saddened, and I wanted to tell him that he had nothing to be ashamed of. But, in the end, all I could manage to say was:
“Yes, it is.”
On the short walk to my girlfriend’s place, I couldn’t help but think:
“….I can’t believe Nureyev shit on his ballet slippers like that….”