At 4:40 p.m. last Saturday, after the matinee of Hairspray at the Neil Simon Theatre, Harvey Fierstein was in his dressing room, shedding his role as Edna, the beloved overweight Baltimore mother he plays eight times a week.
He swiveled his chair toward the door. “Oh, there you are,” he purred in his gravel-and-molasses voice. “Now get naked.”
I had come to join his weekly poker game in the basement of the theater.
Hairspray is closing Jan. 4, a fact that moved Mr. Fierstein to reprise his role as Edna for the last two months. On the way down to the basement we bumped into Mr. Fierstein’s publicist, Rick Miramontez, who said he was relieved the Tony Award-winning actor and I had found each other. “Yes, he came to my dressing room,” said Mr. Fierstein, who was wearing blue jeans, sneakers and a black T-shirt emblazoned with the words “coming soon” in white. “I played with his penis.”
The poker game was to be no-limit Texas Hold ’Em. All the players were actors. Downstairs, in the middle of a carpeted area lit by chandeliers, Kasey Marino was distributing chips around a folding table. Mr. Marino, 30, of New Orleans, has been acting since junior high. He spent four years honing his song-and-dance routine at the Boston Conservatory, then moved to New York and began building his résumé: the Paper Mill Playhouse, Sacramento Music Circus, Starlight Theatre in Kansas City. In the summer of 2007, he snagged a role in Hairspray; former ‘N Sync crooner Lance Bass joined the cast that August.
“See, these are Lance’s chips,” explained Mr. Marino; the pop star’s swoop signature was scrawled on the case of poker chips. “He left them for us.” They would play during a 40-minute stretch in the show when the guys are off stage; they called themselves the Intermission Poker League.
“Make sure this faggot buys in for $20,” bellowed Mr. Fierstein, gesturing toward me as he took the seat to my left. I pushed the bill into the middle of the table.
The game started among the Hairspray cast in 2002, with Mr. Fierstein as ringleader; it followed him to Fiddler on the Roof. Other games popped up at other shows, such as Legally Blonde at the Palace Theatre, where Richard Blake ran the show. When Mr. Fierstein returned to Broadway in A Catered Affair this year, the game resumed at the Walter Kerr Theatre. Now he was back at the Neil Simon.
“Oh, look at this faggot,” he said, referring to the player to my right, Matthew Scott, 26, who had come over from Jersey Boys just down the block. “This faggot’s got a girlfriend. Unless Matt Cavenaugh’s around, he doesn’t eat dick.” (Mr. Scott had been Mr. Cavenaugh’s understudy in A Catered Affair last year.)
Six players total—four actors and Darrell, whom the actors referred to as their “bodyguard.” I asked Darrell his last name. He removed the clip from his gun and set it on the table. Darrell it is!
“Cookie, put that thing away,” said Mr. Fierstein, referring to my tape recorder.
I said something about just wanting to “capture the beauty of it all.”
“Get over that shit. Capture the beauty of it! Where do you get these heterosexual terms?”
It was a strategic move on his part: Now I would have to play cards with one hand and take notes with the other. I had to fight back; I pulled out a Hansen’s soda, mandarin lime flavor, and set it on the table near Mr. Fierstein. Then I cracked it open, nice and loud.
“Oh, Jesus!” he said. “Who drinks that shit? Darrell, do you know anyone who drinks this shit? It’s disgusting!”
“Your turn, Finklestein,” said Mr. Scott.
“If you were three inches closer, I’d smack you,” said Mr. Fierstein.
“If I were three inches closer, my hand would be on your—”
“My penis, I know,” Mr. Fierstein said, exhaling and doing his best impression of a dispirited dragon. He looked at his cards and folded.