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Wow, Catherine Cohen Has an Amazing Voice

On a warm night in June, Catherine Cohen stepped onto the stage at Joe’s Pub in a red silk jumpsuit and cat-eye sunglasses, her puff of long brown hair swept off her face, and approached the microphone. “Hell-ooo,” she trilled. “Wow. I have an amazing voice.”

It was the comedian’s first show at Joe’s Pub, the cozy cabaret venue at the Public Theater, and the crowd was packed and pumped. As audience members sipped cocktails, Cohen tossed her hair, removed her sunglasses, and jumped into her first song, an introductory number in which she explains, “Boys never wanted to kiss me/So now I do comedy.”

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“Wasn’t it so fun?” Cohen remarks when I meet her, a couple weeks later, at a fashionably austere café in Prospect Heights. Dressed in a lime-green tank top and yellow skirt, the 26-year-old is still feeling the high of her show — her first with a full band — which she titled after one of her tweets: “The Twist? … She’s Gorgeous.” The show sold out so quickly, the venue immediately added another, on July 31 — which, at press time, is itself very nearly sold out. Not bad for a girl who used to obsessively scroll through YouTube videos of Joe’s Pub performances as a high-schooler in Houston, Texas. Five years after landing in New York City, Cohen is already ticking items off her bucket list. It’s probably not much of a twist to note that she’s really fucking funny. Our coffees arrive, and she pauses before answering one of my questions. “There was literally a bug on my hand. Like, hello!”

Through short, peppy original songs written with her pianist, Henry Koperski, Cohen both channels and satirizes the joys and frustrations of the young New York woman. The music itself ranges in style from jazzy lounge numbers to perky show tunes to pumping disco anthems, depending on what Cohen is lampooning. Her style isn’t far afield from Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s Rachel Bloom, who shot to fame on the basis of satirical songs she’d post on YouTube. Cohen’s act also calls to mind a less vulnerable Lena Dunham, or a more animated Amy Schumer — both of whom Cohen cites as inspiration, along with other funny women like Bridget Everett (a Joe’s Pub regular), Greta Gerwig, Molly Shannon, and Melissa McCarthy. “I don’t ever want to see anything that doesn’t have a female lead,” she admits, laughing. “I don’t care.”

Cohen did musical theater in high school before studying English and theater at Princeton; her parents work in business, she says, but have always been supportive of her creative aspirations. “They’re both very funny,” she adds. Like any fresh-out-of-college New York transplant with comedic aspirations, Cohen took classes at the Upright Citizens Brigade. But she found her creative footing by being herself. She did some characters — she first hooked up with Koperski a couple years ago to write an original song for a character she was trying out, Imogen Dragons, a ukulele-sporting singer with a “yogurt-y indie girl voice” — and had precisely one straight musical-theater audition when she first arrived in the city after graduating from Princeton in 2013. “I went to one audition and I was like, kill me, end my one life,” she recalls. “It was forty women who looked like me in a room wearing the same outfit, waiting for twelve hours to sing one second of ‘Gimme Gimme’ from Thoroughly Modern Millie. I was like, this is not my scene.”

Instead, she’s created her own scene, producing and hosting a weekly comedy show called Cabernet Cabaret at Club Cumming, the East Village hangout that actor/singer Alan Cumming opened last fall. (At one recent show, Cohen made a dramatic entrance, parting the red velvet curtains behind the club’s tiny stage and issuing a request in a voice dripping with grandeur: “There’s some natural light pouring in from the back and I simply cannot have that.”) It was there that she workshopped the songs that make up her one-woman show, which she also performed at Caroline’s on Broadway in the spring as part of their breakout artists series. Cumming, who calls himself a “major fan,” describes Cohen’s humor as “a sort of hybrid of character and confession which cuts a raw, deep, side-splitting incision into the vein of urban contemporary existence.”

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Cohen pays the bills doing voiceover work in “commercials for female-oriented products,” as she puts it — past stints include Olay, Schick razors, and Special K; basically any product for which a woman in a flowing white dress might appear in an ad, beckoning the prospective customer with promises of youth, beauty, and a tight ass. Her act befits a woman who is the voice of feminine consumerism but knows deep down that it’s a con job. “Voiceover me is a cool, sexy chick who knows what’s up and doesn’t give a shit,” Cohen says. “And comedy me, like, could not care more.” In her songs, Cohen plays a heightened version of herself — “a total cartoon of this glamorous woman I dreamed of being.” Her songs go down surprisingly winding roads; one breezy number about the magic of springtime devolves into an extended fantasy about murdering a guy who once touched her lower back at a party and made a joke about raping her.

Quoting Cohen doesn’t do her justice, though. It’s her delivery that kills, her ability to slip in and out of voices and personas — from a nasally hot-baby-girl squeal to a British-inflected grand dame to a whispery, seen-it-all vixen of the city — like they’re so many silk robes. Her dominant tone is a kind of self-contempt laced through with humblebrags: I’m such a mess; isn’t it adorable? The fact that Cohen has a legitimately lovely, and versatile, singing voice, only makes the tunes funnier. She’s doing something similar to what Lena Dunham did when she burst forth on the scene with the groundbreaking Girls in 2012 — self-deprecation as survival, weaponizing her perceived flaws before anyone can use them against her, all while making it very hard for critics to deny her talent and vision.

When I mention that her act reminds me of Dunham, Cohen tenses for a moment: “Do you hate her?” In the years since HBO premiered Girls, Dunham has become a punching bag for men and women, left and right, but I assure Cohen that no, I think Dunham’s a genius. “That’s how I feel,” Cohen says. “I totally get that she’s done some stupid shit; she’s a person. But at the end of the day, what she’s done is so groundbreaking. I get emotional even thinking about it because when I saw that first episode of Girls when I was in college, and I saw her body and I saw her fucking and talking about sex and enjoying it, I was like, if I had seen this when I was in high school I would have thought about myself totally differently.”

Catherine Cohen

Like Dunham, and Schumer, and so many other comedians Cohen admires, she’s determined to create a space for herself. Maybe she’ll land a role in a TV show, or, more likely, write one herself. If she “books,” she may travel to Los Angeles. “I want to go back and forth,” she declares, “gorgeously.” She rattles off a list of her faves, her inspo, her mental mood board: “Jenny Slate; I’m so obsessed with her. Insecure is so fucking good. Fleabag, are you serious? I Love Dick, amazing. I want to make something like that, just showing different kinds of women, how fucking cool they all are. And how funny and smart and human they are.”

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In “After Louie,” Alan Cumming Confronts His Memories of Activism and Loss

Alan Cumming, as frustrated artist and former AIDS activist Sam Cooper, frequently confers with the dead: the idea of the queer community he once depended on and that he thinks has been replaced by apathetic millennials; the dreams of what that community might have looked like today; and his old friend William (David Drake), who died of AIDS in the ’90s. Sam hovers over a timeline on his computer, his progress on a video installation moving at a glacial pace. A third of the film is directly about Sam’s relationship to one specific art project, a period tone poem shot in shabby DV, and it’s in these interactions between life and death — ACT UP posters and pins mirroring clean digital and old DV — that Vincent Gagliostro’s film After Louie is at its strongest.

Though the film posits trauma, of the queer sort, as something to constantly work through and reckon with, writer-director Gagliostro presents Sam’s reconciliation with trauma, outside the immediate context of the video installation, as unexpectedly tedious. Sam’s no angel, sanctimonious and oblivious, and the broad stories outside the commanding performances of Cumming and Drake — a younger lover and older boyfriend; friends dying; friends getting married — yield paltry returns. Its subject matter is interesting, and it’s right to remind viewers of the need for different generations of queer people to communicate, but After Louie is burdened by narrative and dialogue clichés that undermine its emotional appeal. And how often is it that a fake movie within a movie is better than the movie that it’s in?

After Louie
Directed by Vincent Gagliostro
Freestyle Digital Media
Opens March 30, Cinema Village
Available on demand

 

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SPICE UP YOUR LIFE

It occupies a permanent spot in the cannon of pop crossovers, foremother to Katy Perry’s Part of Me and Britney Spears’s Crossroads. But Spice World (1997) has wonky British flair, placing it more fittingly next to the Monkees’ Head than any other music-to-movie venture. See Baby, Scary, Sporty, Posh, and Ginger (sometimes called Sexy) Spice as they blaze through a series of vignettes in their ballin’ double-decker tour bus. The phenomenon that was the Spice Girls may have been reduced to a mental footnote in the cultural memory of most millennials, to be consulted chiefly when belting “Wannabe” at bachelorette party karaoke and never more. But back in the day, everyone was on board; the movie’s guest stars include Elton John, Meatloaf, and Alan Cumming as Piers Cuthbertson-Smyth, an overzealous filmmaker stalking the band. Cumming introduces the film tonight, so slam your body down . . . a-zig-a-zig-ah.

Fri., June 13, 12:10 a.m., 2014

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Not Much Has Changed in the Roundabout’s Revival of Cabaret

After a 10-year absence, Cabaret has returned to Broadway and Studio 54. In many ways, it feels as though it never left. It’s more of a rehashing than a revival. Director Sam Mendes and co-director and choreographer Rob Marshall have returned to give us everything that made the original Roundabout production a long-running hit. The sex-drenched Kit Kat Klub, with its scantily clad performers and red-shaded boudoir lamps scattered among the audience, has hardly changed a stitch. Fortunately, Alan Cumming, too, has returned (and hardly changed), treating us to another dose of the irascible, irrepressible Emcee he first reinvented over 20 years ago in London.

One fresh face, never before seen on Broadway, does offer a few surprises. Michelle Williams, who impresses as Sally Bowles, hits all the notes and even displays an unexpected capacity for desperation and abandon in two of her musical numbers. In her films, Williams most often brings frailty and earnestness to her roles, and her Sally is no exception. But what’s needed, and what goes missing, is much of the cabaret darling’s willful self-delusion.

Aside from Cumming, there are two other reasons to revisit Weimar Berlin. Linda Emond, as Fraulein Schneider, and Danny Burstein, as Herr Schultz, provide a center of gravity for what is otherwise a dizzying circus of anarchic debauchery. If there is any regret, it’s that Emond and Burstein aren’t given more stage time and more music with which to charm us. Both embody the sort of grace that, even when rehashed, never grows old.

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Macbeth: Psyched Out

Macbeth is one of the loneliest characters Shakespeare ever wrote. He sacrifices everything to his ravenous ambition—sleep, friendship, loyalty, conscience; even, eventually, his loving if twisted marriage—leaving him to enjoy his hard-won ascent entirely alone. He indulges his lust for power at the expense of every human relationship and institution that might give that power meaning.

And so doing a one-man Macbeth makes a kind of sense. He’s alone anyway.
But Alan Cumming’s new solo version of the play—a National Theatre of Scotland production, directed by John Tiffany and Andrew Goldberg—is Macbeth-like in other ways as well. Onstage, overweening ambition and reckless self-indulgence leads to a spectacle signifying nothing beyond charisma, forcefully applied.

The production’s concept is clever but ultimately more confining than it is revelatory. Seizing on the fact that the play is full of scenes of private psychosis—Macbeth hallucinates the famous dagger, and sees his murdered friend Banquo at dinner; Lady M, tormented by her own guilt, scrubs obsessively at an imaginary bloodstain—Cumming and his collaborators transpose the action to a mental hospital.

In its opening sequence, we see Cumming, drawn and twitchy, being committed to a psych ward for observation—by a doctor and nurse, by attentive surveillance cameras, and, of course, by us. (The set, by Merle Hensel, is a gorgeously miserable piece of bilious green medical architecture). His clothes and personal effects are placed in brown bags marked “evidence,” and he’s dressed in hospital jammies and left by himself in the expansive institution. Soon, the patient begins to present with some exotic symptoms: He hallucinates a mostly intact text of Shakespeare’s Macbeth— playing all the characters, strutting and fretting across the clinic. (Throughout, much of his experience resists credibility: Cumming has the run of a giant multi-bed ward; he’s repeatedly administered sedatives that don’t work; and he’s allowed to take unsupervised baths, eviscerate a bird, and mess around with the vents.)

At times, the conceit works brilliantly: you can look up to an onstage observation gallery to see Cumming’s peacocking registered by the medical professionals as profoundly addled behavior. The onstage cameras and screens allow him to split his performing self into three projected avatars to portray the Weird Sisters. But, as the evening goes on, you might justifiably wonder why this patient’s delusions are so very linear, his jailhouse pacing so clearly blocked, the various warring aspects of his schizoid psyche so crisply and carefully delineated, the blank verse he emits in torrents so carefully memorized.

Cumming’s bravura performance is shot full of energy, but it lacks nuance, sacrificing the verse to adrenaline-laced generalities, and characterization to caricature. His Duncan is an aristocratic loony, his MacDuff and Banquo bluff Scottish cartoons. His Lady M—who makes her first appearance vamping around a bathtub— is a slinky treat at first, but later hard to distinguish from her disintegrating lord. (If you haven’t read the play lately, you may have trouble following the plot.)

The production gets some laughs this way, but the staginess means that the horrific nature of Macbeth’s crimes mostly doesn’t really register, since his victims are theatrical stereotypes. (Cumming goes in the other direction with the MacDuff family murders, howling with grief). We can’t see what kind of society dies with Duncan, or what kind of transformation Malcolm’s return might bring.

This Macbeth is too lucidly staged to be a madman’s hallucination, and too limited by its introverted premise to be an effective rendition of the play. Without a social world in which to see the consequences of Macbeth’s crimes play out, we’re left with nothing to really pay attention to except Cumming’s Olympian exertions—like Macbeth himself, he’s alone with his own ambition. It’s all in his head.

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SLEEP NO MORE

A highlight of last summer’s Lincoln 
Center Festival, the National Theatre of Scotland’s Macbeth starring Scottish actor Alan Cumming as a mental patient who channels just about every single character in the play is back for a limited engagement on Broadway. Staged by Tony winner John Tiffany (Once), who directed Cumming in The Bacchae in 2008, and 
Andrew Goldberg, this minimalist reimagining, aided by innovative video design, is set in a room in a psychiatric unit, where a closed-circuit camera follows the patient as he lives out the gory tale over and over again.

Sundays, 3 p.m.; Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, 7 p.m.; Fridays, Saturdays, 8 p.m. Starts: April 7. Continues through June 30, 2013

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Almost in Love: Jesus, These People Are Boring

Shot digitally in two extended 40-minute takes, director Sam Neave’s Almost in Love has audacity and theatrical immediacy working for it. There’s also some really impressive sound design. And that’s it, pretty much. The actors rise to the occasion, stunt-jumping over Stagecraft Canyon with adequately unbroken performances, but it’s hard to avoid describing the characters as a bunch of boring, entitled drama queens. So in the interest of expediency: Jesus, these people are boring. In the film’s first half, Sasha (Alex Karpovsky) throws a veranda party at his Staten Island condo, attended by a bunch of supposedly witty friends, including Mia (Marjan Neshat), the woman he secretly loves, and Kyle (Gary Wilmes) the best friend who once dated her even though he knew. Neave’s camera drifts artfully through the party, conversations and laughter rising and fading like a rhythmic tide through the soundtrack. As written, Sasha and Mia are too passive to generate sympathy, and Mia is implausibly oblivious to the drama between Sasha and Kyle. Plus, why does Karpovsky spend so much time with his back to the camera? There’s a boring quarrel, some revelations, and then a fade to the film’s second act. It’s the night of Sasha’s wedding, in which he wanders through yet another party attended by all the same douche­canoes, plus Alan Cumming, who, against all odds, turns out to be the most obnoxious character. It’s like the party that opens monster thriller Cloverfield, full of pampered, obtuse assholes, but way less sympathetic, and the monster never shows up.

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Any Day Now Makes Injustice Risible

Gay-male weepies have left a long trail of tears, stretching back to the sobbing, self-loathing queens of The Boys in the Band, released one year after the Stonewall insurrection of 1969, and including high-prestige pictures like Philadelphia (1993) and Brokeback Mountain (2005). The genre, most prominent during the first decade of the AIDS pandemic, has used melodrama to bid for (straight) audience sympathy, often neutering its characters in desperate pleas for tolerance. As social attitudes and state constitutions have changed, the number of these films has dwindled. Homophobia and injustice still exist, of course—as do inept if extremely heartfelt movies about legally sanctioned hate. Travis Fine’s 1979-set Any Day Now, about a part-time drag queen and his D.A. boyfriend fighting for custody of a teenager with Down syndrome, is undeniably filled with good intentions. But we all know where those lead; hell is also where this lesbian might be headed for panning this film.

The shameless heartstring-tugging of Any Day Now begins immediately, as mentally disabled Marco (Isaac Leyva), clutching a blond-haired doll, is seen—mostly from behind—roaming the streets of Los Angeles at night. The 14-year-old has a history of being exiled from or abandoned in the rat hole he shares with his mother, Marianna (Jamie Anne Allman), who, when she’s not tooting coke, is working the streets. Down-the-hall neighbor Rudy (Alan Cumming), a New York transplant and occasional drag performer at a West Hollywood dive called Fabio’s, notices Marco all alone one morning, patiently waiting for his breakfast while, across town, Mom is being taken in by the vice squad. To figure out how to best keep Marco safe from the horrors of Social Services, Rudy calls Paul (Deadwood‘s Garret Dillahunt), the closeted lawyer in the district attorney’s office he had pleasured—both aurally, with his lip-synched rendition of the overlooked disco treasure “Come to Me,” and orally—the night before. (The one upside to Fine’s shoestring budget is that it forced him to be creative with his soundtrack choices.)

After Marianna waives her parental rights—and after Paul makes a second visit to Fabio’s to marvel at Rudy’s choreography in a Carmen Miranda outfit to Honey Cone’s “One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show”—Marco has two daddies. He and Rudy move into Paul’s respectable civil servant home, a bulwark of love and stability. The couple, initially posing as cousins, petition for custody, a plan that’s derailed when their same-sex love is discovered, and the Carter-era California judicial system reveals its bigotry.

Although currently 16 states, including California, allow joint gay adoptions (and many others decide legal status on a case-by-case basis), that bigotry still hasn’t been fully expunged from the law books. As a reminder of the flagrant (and lingering) injustices of a not-so-distant past, Any Day Now might have some value as an earnest public service. But it’s hard to take the message seriously when Cumming is left to keen “This is a travesty of justice!” while struggling with a Queens accent and buried (as Dillahunt is also) under a wig fished out of a dumpster after Milk wrapped.

As an out-and-proud actor, Cumming’s presence gives Any Day Now an ostensible stamp of gay authenticity—as does Rufus Wainwright’s original song “Metaphorical Blanket,” played over the closing credits. But Cumming’s character, saddled with the worst dialogue in the film, is an unholy hybrid of Dolly Levi and gay-pride-parade steering committee member. “Trust me, honey, we can all do with a little extra luck in this crazy world,” Rudy says to Marco before mailing off his demo tape to club owners—a superfluous subplot that allows Cumming to do some actual belting, including a maudlin cover of “I Shall Be Released,” a lyric from which gives this film its title. “Here’s your chance to bust open that closet door and do some world-changin’,” he says to Paul before they approach the family court judge (Frances Fisher), disdainful of their “openly homosexual lifestyle.”

Any Day Now is homo history repurposed as courtroom soap opera. Fine, greatly embellishing a script written decades ago by George Arthur Bloom (who based it on a real-life, high-camp Brooklyn neighbor and the mentally challenged kid he looked after), has virtuous aims but horrible storytelling instincts. Straining for “teachable moments,” the film has one noteworthy, unintentional function: to remind us that though LGBT rights are continually evolving, the laws of kitsch remain immutable.

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Alan Cumming: “I Have a Non Grindr Marriage!”

“I march to my own drum,” Alan Cumming told me last week, and though he was referring to his iconoclastic dancing style, it could have been about any aspect of his non-boring existence. The Scottish actor not only cooks up his own drumbeat, he’ll do it with a spatula and a saucepan if need be. He’ll syncopate it with the sound of 1,000 clowns dancing in the dark while spinning hula hoops and clanking castanets. Cumming is radioactively individual, and, as a result, he’s often called upon to play roles that provide arty ambisexual arousal and wickedly wry wit.

Like the role of Alan Cumming. Last summer, he performed as himself in a cabaret act in Fire Island, with a special guest named Liza Minnelli. They have a sort of Cabaret connection, but that’s not the end of it. “We really get on,” said Cumming (who’ll play Town Hall with Liza in March). “She feels safe with me. We have a laugh, but also I think she gets a curious pleasure out of our friendship.” The night after the concert, the two of them were in the middle of an outdoor dinner when a huge storm hit, so they had to frantically pack up and move inside. As the waves crashed, Cumming felt the urge to run down to the water and gaily commingle with it. “I came running back, drenched,” he said. “And Liza said, ‘I wish I could do that!'” Imagine being more fearless than living-well Liza?

Another time, Liza was sick and housebound, so she’d regularly call Cumming to vicariously see what he was up to. “What are we doing tonight?” she’d ask, giggling. “Drinks, dinner, and later we might have a booty call,” responded Cumming with a smile.

The act, by the way, was sensational, with Cumming adroitly veering between saucy confessional tunes and spunkily reinterpreted standards. He told me the Vegas-y, perfect-teeth type of act doesn’t sing to him so much as a European-style provocation. “A true cabaret has a lot of different things happening,” he said, “and they’re all backed up against each other, a kind of collage. You can talk about an ex-boyfriend one moment and the next moment about getting older.” In my case, those wouldn’t necessarily be two separate topics.

Cumming came to NYC in 1998 as the leering MC in the ripped-fishnets revival of Cabaret, and once that ignited, he never left. “I was in a place where I was ready to be that open and provocative,” he recalled. “As an artist, I felt daring and sexy. You have to feel good about yourself to do something that out there.”

The downside is that ever since, people have expected him to be “this crazy, hanging-from-the-rafters kind of person.” When they meet him and find a probing aesthete who merely likes some fun on the side, they have to pause and rethink the whole picture, even if he looks a little drenched from the waves.

Cumming’s new movie, Any Day Now, might help with the perception change. Yes, he plays a 1979 San Francisco drag queen who beds strangers in cars, but that’s just the beginning. The character, Rudy, becomes fixated on a hunky district attorney and an abandoned boy with Down syndrome whom they decide to seek custody of. (The latter is played sweetly by Isaac Leyva). In the process of fighting for his rights, Rudy finds his voice—literally—and no longer has to lip-synch, unlike most of today’s pop stars.

Does Cumming like watching himself in drag? “No, I hate it!” he balked. “You can make me look a bit girly, and it’s interesting. But when you get the whole hog, I look like a horse with the wig on. I look like a horse!

“I did a miniseries in which I played a transvestite. That was better because it wasn’t just performance drag. I think the performance part I’m not so good at. Doing it with real drag queens in Any Day Now, I felt like amateur hour!” (Well, I found Cumming’s unshaved armpits another interesting act of defiance.)

Cumming also gets angsty about the legal problems the movie’s couple goes through, especially because things haven’t changed enough since 1979. “It pisses me off that everyone goes, ‘Most gay couples adopt,'” noted the actor. “They don’t do that through the state system—they have to go to different countries or private agencies, a lot of which are actually through churches, bizarrely. There are some states where it’s possible, but it’s not easy, and there’s still so much prejudice about gay men and kids.”

Meanwhile, offbeat heteros couple on TV’s The Good Wife, for which Cumming has nabbed two Emmy nominations as Eli Gold, the blunt campaign manager of Chris Noth. Cumming recently heard that Rahm Emanuel likes his performance, which is good because the character seems pretty much based on him!

And Cumming’s the good husband in reality; he’s married to illustrator Grant Shaffer, and the fact that the show shoots in New York turns out to have immeasurably helped the marriage. “It’s nice to be physically in the same bed as your husband most of the time,” he told me, sounding satisfied. “Do you have an old-fashioned commitment? I.e., you’re not on Grindr?” I wondered, sheepishly. Cumming laughed and said: “We’re very, very old fashioned. We have a no-Grindr clause!”

He explained that he and Grant came together as equals who accept each other as is: “We really are proper partners.”

“Well, now we’ll have to get you a Down syndrome kid,” I cracked.

“If I could adopt Isaac, I’d love that,” he noted, mistily. They have a similar drumbeat.

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Macbeth

The Scottish play has 28 speaking roles and the Scottish actor Alan Cumming will play all of them in the National Theatre of Scotland’s version of Shakespeare’s chiller at Lincoln Center Festival. Set in an asylum, this production, co-directed by Tony-winner John Tiffany, features Cumming as a troubled man haunted by the play’s figures.

Tuesdays-Sundays, 7:30 p.m.; Sat., July 14, 2 p.m. Starts: July 5. Continues through July 14, 2012