Man, remember parties? The sound of ice cubes in a tumbler, idle conversation and Whose Spotify even is this? Before we were socially distant, we were merely social, and gay men particularly relished the role of the bon vivant holding court over parlors, living rooms, rooftops, fire escapes, anywhere with an audience.
Today’s lack of audience isn’t stopping the hilarious Drew Droege from bringing the party to streaming service BroadwayHD with his most recent brilliant solo show, Happy Birthday Doug, released today.
Originally running Off-Broadway at the SoHo Playhouse, the filmed version puts a pandemic spin on a show that ran only a few weeks before New York City’s shutdown forced an early closure. The result is partially an ingenious approach to adapting a live stage show to a virtual format, as well as an artifact of a time when we gathered together indoors and raised our glasses without masks or worry.
“I’m always really interested in our dynamics as gay men and how we navigate parties,” Droege told us in a recent phone interview. “We can be really nervous around each other. We can be really competitive. We can be really lovely and open and honest, all of that. I think we’re at our most vulnerable around each other.”
Happy Birthday Doug live on stage featured the performer portraying a spate of gay characters attending the titular celebration. From the sensual Devin to the insufferable former(?) actor Jason, the intergenerational party opens the door to explore sex, exes, drugs, getting older and never growing up.
“I was thinking about gay men in LA and our relationships with each other, our friendships and love life and our elders,” he said of the show’s initial inspiration. “Going into my 40s and becoming a sort of elder myself, it’s sort of on me now to share history, and I’m still learning from what people my age and older went through.”
While much of the show’s impact can be attributed to Droege’s ability to craft three-dimensional queer characters grounded in reality but performed to the hilt, one of the most memorable scenes is also Happy Birthday Doug‘s most surreal: the appearance of the ghost of the ultimate bon vivant, Oscar Wilde.
“I was at a party with a room full of gay men, and everyone was just zsa-zsa-zsa, witty-witty-witty, throwing barbs. I just had the thought that every gay man thinks that he’s Oscar Wilde when he’s had a couple drinks. And none of us are. None of us are Oscar Wilde. We all kind of want that position. When we’re the only gay person in the room, we are given that throne.”
These kinds of razor-sharp insights into the interpersonal relationships between gay men are a recurring feature of Droege’s work. He may be best known for his unhinged Chloë Sevigny character, but his previous show, Bright Colors and Bold Patterns, drew acclaim for its unflinching look at the community.
“I love gay men so much, I just think that we still don’t see enough representation of humans who make mistakes, who have flaws, who aren’t always the greatest, who aren’t always the prettiest and the most upstanding citizen,” he said. “We’re still afraid as gay men to show our warts, and I’m not.”
That show was set in Palm Springs ahead of a wedding, and, in an almost inverse of Doug, Droege was a single actor engaging in dialogue with empty chaise lounges and bar stools standing in for an array of costars. Here, Droege embodies a variety of party guests addressing the audience as a stand-in for the guest of honor. The filmed format may feel familiar to anyone whose schedule has replaced happy hours with Zoom meetings.
Don’t be mistaken; Happy Birthday Doug takes place firmly in the Before Times. Despite that recognizable, Brady Bunch-esque spread of screens, the show does well to maintain the illusion these characters are all present at the same party. Still, Droege’s direct-to-camera approach does likely hit different these days after becoming so used to being engaged directly from a screen.
The result is one of the most effective “theater” experiences I’ve enjoyed during the pandemic. Droege is so gifted at carrying a dialogue we only hear one side of, but when he’s directing that electrifying energy straight to camera, it’s difficult not to fill in the blanks based on his context clues. At Droege’s breakneck speed, one is almost lulled into a trance, engaging in this psychic volley of repartee. It’s a very cool effect that makes the eventual arrival of Doug all the more impactful.
Perhaps the most profound way the pandemic has left its mark on the show though, is the recently renewed reverence for its central theme of appreciating the present moment with the people who mean the most.
“I feel like I’m somebody that’s very independent and very individual. I feel like an island sometimes. During all of this I’ve been like, ‘I need to call friends and reach out and talk through things.’ I’ve needed to call friends and tell them I love them in a way that I never did before. I think all of that is in this piece. Even though it is a comedy, and even though it’s sending up modern gay life and there’s a lot of pithy, LA industry chat in it, we miss these parties now. We crave that connection.”
Happy Birthday Doug is available now on BroadwayHD. (Bright Colors and Bold Patterns is also available on the streaming service.)