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Jeff Hiller gripes about a gay wedding in Bright Colors And Bold Patterns
Jeff Hiller's name may not be familiar, but if you watch TV or see a lot of Off-Broadway theatre, he's probably made you laugh. Although the comic character actor is usually relegated to brief bits, he always hijacks the spotlight, whether he's playing a bitchy airline steward on 30 Rock, a whiney John Quincy Adams in Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, a mechanical embracing his inner drag queen in last summer's A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Delacorte, or all the supporting parts in Silence! The Musical.
But Hiller doesn't get to steal any scenes in his latest show Bright Colors And Bold Patterns, currently running at Soho Playhouse. That's because he's the only person onstage. The long-running solo comedy about Gerry (pronounced "Gary") -- a flamboyant middle-aged gay man ranting about attending a peer's wedding -- was written and originally performed by Drew Droege. Hiller stepped into the role late last month and quickly won over audiences -- he even got RuPaul's seal of approval. TDF Stages chatted with Hiller about taking on his largest theatrical role to date, the details of his own real-life gay wedding, and why he needs to write a solo show called Exotic Goldfish.
Raven Snook: For most of its 80 minutes, Bright Colors And Bold Patterns is a campy comedy. But toward the end, it gets pretty heavy as it examines complicated generational differences in the gay community. Did you have any trepidation about taking on such a large and not completely comic role?
Jeff Hiller: I had some hesitation. I wouldn't say that my self-esteem is ever like, "Oh I'm ready for this!" I was a little scared of the serious moments, but those have actually been the parts that are the most rewarding. To actually have some emotions onstage as opposed to just being the dumb guy! I like being the dumb guy, too, but it's fun to do something different.
Raven: Gerry is very ambivalent about gay marriage. And even though it's an over-the-top comedy, Bright Colors And Bold Patterns seems to be part of a wave of plays examining the cultural impact of the new gay domesticity, like Dada Woof Papa Hot, Daniel's Husband, Steve, and Gently Down the Stream. As someone who is gay and married, did you ever have any mixed emotions about it?
Jeff: It's funny because my husband and I actually had that conversation. I knocked on doors trying to pass gay marriage. I was not confused about how I felt: I was adamant that marriage should be a right for all people. But there was this weird moment when it became legal -- not just in California and New York, where I was living at the time -- but also across the country when the Supreme Court knocked down DOMA. I was sort of like, "Should we do this?" Because neither one of us wanted a wedding. I'm not a party planner -- I get nervous planning birthday parties much less a gay wedding. So we eloped and just went to the courthouse. I wanted to make sure I get the apartment if he dies, but I didn't want to smoosh cake in his face while my parents watched. The conclusion my husband and I came to was, what more radical way of thumbing your nose at traditional marriage than marrying someone of the same gender? I don't know if that's still true, but that's how we felt in 2013.
Raven: Gerry blithely describes himself as "too much," which is a bit of an understatement. He makes some of the contestants on RuPaul's Drag Race seem low-key. How do you approach playing such a hot mess of a character?
Jeff: When I was cast in this role, people were like, "Oh this is the perfect part for you!" I was a little like, "Wait, what? Ouch!" Cause I'm really not like Gerry at all. There are some ways I wish I were more like Gerry. I wish I were more in-your-face. I wish I weren't such a people-pleaser. So in a way, playing him is sort of this fantasy of being able to say these outrageous things. Even my arm motions are outrageous. In general I would love to use my arms as much as Gerry does but I'm afraid it would lead to a hate crime.
Raven: After all the talk about Lifetime movies and Steel Magnolias and sex and drugs, Gerry has some pretty melancholy moments. Were any of your friends surprised by the range you display in the show?
Jeff: My husband said some really nice things to me in a way that I was like, "Oh, I wonder if he thought I couldn't do it?" He said, "It was just so surprising, you really found all of those tender moments!"
Raven: Oh no -- the show's going to catapult you into couples therapy.
Jeff: Exactly. The show about gay marriage that ruined my gay marriage!
Raven: The show certainly seems to attract audiences who are Gerry's real-life contemporaries.
Jeff: It does have a unique appeal to gay men of a certain age. I guess that's because a 23-year-old gay kid 1. Isn't thinking about marriage yet and 2. Since they've been out, gay marriage has been legal. So many of us who are, ahem, older than 23 are really the ones who are thinking about these things. When I was a kid, to admit you were gay meant you were probably going to die. With the AIDS epidemic you weren't thinking a lot about the future; you were thinking about life preservation. Now it's such a different landscape and that's part of what this show is talking about, how different the outlook is for people who come out today versus people who came out 30 years ago. It's a very, very different world. It is so fascinating that Gerry says he's not ready to be married and yet he does several things in the show that make it clear that he's a little foggy on whether or not he wants a partner. The play shows all of these different shades of feelings that you go through being a middle-aged gay man.
Raven: Are you sure you want to admit to being middle-aged?
Jeff: Well, if you doubled my age and I died, you wouldn't be like, "He was so young!"
Raven: Before you went into entertainment you had perhaps the least funny job ever: a social worker working with homeless youth and HIV prevention. How does your activism surface today?
Jeff: It comes out on Twitter a lot. I'm really changing lives by doing some really important retweets! I volunteer and I try to be political in my everyday life. I teach improv at the UCB and I try to champion funny people who haven't been championed historically in the past. Things like that.
Raven: And random: Did you know that if you google your name, one of the autofill suggestions is "Jeff Hiller exotic goldfish?" I assumed that had to be some show you did. But no, do you know about Jeff Hiller the exotic fish dealer?
Jeff: Yes! Every once in a while I'll get an email asking about exotic fish. Now I want to do a one-man show called Exotic Goldfish. It really works! It paints a picture of me that I'm not offended by.
TDF MEMBERS: At press time, discount tickets were available for Bright Colors And Bold Patterns. Go here to browse our current offers.
Raven Snook is the Editor of TDF Stages. Follow her at @RavenSnook. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.
Top image: Jeff Hiller in Bright Colors And Bold Patterns. Photos by Russ Rowland.