After that fateful evening, Bruce and I became scholars of the Ridiculous. We read up on the company’s early work, far more outré than even the outrageous Irma Vep — plays with delicious, profane titles like Turds in Hell and Isle of Hermaphrodites. We found photos of other company members: John Vaccaro, the secondhand book merchant and tempestuous director who’d originally founded the group; winsome leading lady Black-Eyed Susan; and the sexually ambiguous Mario Montez, star of the Jack Smith film Flaming Creatures. We vowed to descend that kaleidoscopic staircase again and again, to keep abreast of the company’s future work.

Soon we had an established ritual. We’d meet at the Monster, a gay bar in Sheridan Square known for its cheerful seediness and show-tune sing-alongs. A quick drink, and at curtain time, we’d cross the street. After the play, we’d grab a late supper, usually at a coffee shop, and discuss the play over greasy fries in a vinyl banquette.

“There was an announcement in the Voice,” Bruce told me one evening, dabbing the ketchup from his chin. “Next up at the Ridiculous? An adaptation of Flaubert’s novel Salammbô.

“Have you read it?” I asked.

“No,” said Bruce, “But get this.” He arched an eyebrow and leaned over the table, lowering his voice to a confidential tone. “The production features live doves, six naked bodybuilders, and a five-hundred-pound actress, totally nude, covered in prosthetic scars to simulate the last, fatal stages of leprosy.”

What further enticement did we need?

We bought our tickets early to three performances over the course of the show’s run. The reviews for Salammbô were as savage as the notices for Irma Vep had been ecstatic. But in our dark little hearts, we preferred it. It had a decadence, an unapologetic extravagance, that spoke to us as young gay men who were both exhilarated and terrified by our own outsider status in the larger culture.

Bruce became infatuated with one particular actor in Salammbô. His name was Philip Campanaro, and he played Matho the Barbarian. Mr. Campanaro’s negligible acting skills and thick Noo Yawk accent were mitigated by a chiseled Italian face and the body of a veritable Tarzan. He performed his role in a loincloth seemingly made of kite string, and his only previous show-business experience had been a pictorial in a magazine with the evocative title Torso. He wooed the heroine (Ludlam, of course) with lines like “Come to me, I love thee more than life, virgin who meltest my soul.” Onstage, Salammbô swooned. In row F, three seats off the aisle, so did Bruce.

A few months later my telephone rang.

“Guess what?” Bruce exclaimed. “Philip Campanaro is starring in the next Ridiculous show. It’s a send-up of James M. Cain film noirs called The Artificial Jungle. It’s set in a pet shop. There’s a piranha tank onstage, and a six-foot-tall drag queen who does back flips.”

“We are so going,” I said.

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