‘The Normal Heart’
By Larry Kramer
Directed by Joel Grey and George C. Wolfe
Golden Theatre, New York
Through July 10, 2011
It’s a tribute to the power of Larry Kramer’s “The Normal Heart” as both a play and as a historical document that I didn’t think I could bring myself to see the new production currently finishing its limited run on Broadway. Having seen the 1985 original and the 2004 revival (both at the Public Theater), having read and written about the play several times in the interim, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to subject myself to the inevitable agony of reliving my own experiences of the early 1980s when the grim reaper of AIDS slashed its way through New York City gay life. But the word of mouth was so strong, and the vote of confidence from the Tony Awards so compelling (best play revival, best supporting actor and actress), that I needed to satisfy my curiosity about both how the play looks at this distance in time and the performances under the direction of George C. Wolfe. (The actor Joel Grey receives credit as co-director, because he directed the star-studded benefit readings of the play in Los Angeles and New York in 2010 that inspired producer Daryl Roth to mount the show on Broadway. And since he replaced the original star, Brad Davis, in the first production, he provides a living connection to the play’s history. But I think we can assume that Wolfe was instrumental in shaping the performances, especially that of Joe Mantello, the super-successful Broadway director whose last appearance on Broadway as an actor was under Wolfe’s guidance in the Broadway premiere of “Angels in America.”)
For those who don’t know the play, “The Normal Heart” was part of the theater world’s first response to the AIDS crisis. It and William M. Hoffman’s “As Is” took the lead in promoting education on AIDS and concern for the afflicted way before the press, the government, and other media did. Dramatizing the formation in 1981 of Gay Men’s Health Crisis (the primarily volunteer organization, co-founded by Kramer, that has become the model for AIDS service agencies around the world), the play is part autobiography and part jeremiad. Kramer’s gripping and caustically comic portrait of personalities and politics inside New York’s gay male community is wrapped around a love story between writer Ned Weeks and New York Times reporter Felix Turner.
Starting with a completely bare stage and David Rockwell’s stark white-on-white walls, Wolfe does with the first act of the play what he does best, which is to focus on the emotional nuances of intimate relationships within a simple theatrical framework. Whatever medical history and politics start flying around the room, we stay closely tied to Mantello’s Ned as his relationships unfold with his wheelchair-bound doctor, Emma Brookner (Ellen Barkin), who asks him to sound the alarm; his friends Mickey, Bruce, and Tommy, with whom he launches GMHC; his brother Ben (Mark Harelik), to whom he appeals for financial support and family approval; and Felix (John Benjamin Hickey), the fashion reporter whom Ned leans on to get the Times involved in AIDS coverage. With remarkable deftness, economy, and humor, these scenes capture so much about that dark time. The population of gay men only just emerging from a legacy of shame and homophobia into sexual self-realization suddenly had to contend with a mysterious deadly disease attacking their community. And they were hindered in the fight by the ignorance, indifference, and/or outright opposition of people with the power to help.
As passionate as he is self-serving, Ned (a not-even-thinly-veiled version of Kramer himself) directs his fury at two targets. First he excoriates the media (especially the Times) and the government (especially Mayor Ed Koch) for turning a blind eye to an epidemic occurring among homosexuals and drug addicts while making front-page stories out of episodes with far fewer fatalities (Legionnaire’s Disease, a batch of bad Tylenol). But Weeks/Kramer is also angry at gay men for not being more militant in demanding attention be paid to the AIDS crisis. He becomes increasingly abrasive and obnoxious, to the point of being kicked out of the organization he founded. However self-righteous he becomes in portraying himself as the victim of other people’s cowardice, it is nevertheless an astonishingly honest self-portrait of someone who recognizes that he alienates the people closest to him with his relentlessness, his egomania, and his insensitivity. Mantello’s performance—fierce, blunt, remarkably understated, steadfastly free of vanity—is the best Ned Weeks I’ve ever seen and the single strongest element in this production.
After intermission, “The Normal Heart” goes off the rails somewhat, as careful playwriting slides into screechy speechifying. The four long monologues that dominate the second act give the actors some big showy moments, and they allow the playwright to make his political points directly without bothering to turn them into dialogue, but they detract from the play’s persuasiveness. Whatever admiration I had for Ellen Barkin’s performance flew out the window with her speech, delivered downstage front-and-center, yelling at the medical establishment “You’re all idiots!” And I cringed at the speech in which Ned responds to being kicked out of the group by equating himself with a long list of famous homosexuals from history.
There are several things that bug me about “The Normal Heart.” A staunch polemicist, Kramer frames all issues in black and white: you’re either helping the cause (by following his example and being a blistering loudmouth) or you’re responsible for murdering fellow gays. When it comes to sex, gay men have only two choices: orgiastic promiscuity or celibacy. These distortions diminish the play’s truthfulness. The play seems to suggest that gay political activism began with Larry Kramer, as if previous generations of pre- and post-Stonewall gay political activists never existed. It seems to suggest that, without him as the organization’s fearless leader, GMHC became a timid band of gay candy-stripers, rather than a life-transforming model of altruistic communal caregiving. And it presents Ned/Kramer and his doctor as lone voices crying in the wilderness—necessarily selective and unavoidably self-serving as drama, but a little insulting to the efforts of a dozen gay community physicians and eloquent gay activists like Michael Callen and Vito Russo, who died of AIDS themselves, kicking and screaming all the way. No one play can tell all this history. But along with the letter from Larry Kramer that volunteers hand out to audience members leaving the theater, I would want to distribute a reading list that would include key works by Randy Shilts (“And the Band Played On”), Eric Rofes (“Reviving the Tribe,” “Dry Bones Breathe”), Dennis Altman (“AIDS in the Mind of America”), Walt Odets (“In the Shadow of the Epidemic”), George Whitmore (“Someone Was Here”), Sarah Schulman (“My American History,” “People in Trouble”), and Amy Hoffman (“Hospital Time”).
My boyfriend Andy had never seen “The Normal Heart” before and was in tears at the end of the play. Having seen “Angels in America” and “The Intelligent Homosexual” with me in the last six months, he astutely made a connection between Tony Kushner’s passionate talky characters and Kramer’s play. It had never occurred to me before, but of course “The Normal Heart” must have imprinted Kushner as much as any of the other obvious influences on his work. Even at its lumpiest and most manipulative, the play successfully does the thing I feared it would, which is bring back floods of memories of living through the 1980s and early ’90s, experiences that created gaping craters of grief and loss that those of us who survived will never recover from. And clearly it has a powerful impact on younger people who wouldn’t encounter this historical information any other way.