Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart premiered in April 1985. Two more years would pass before then-President Ronald Reagan would publicly acknowledge the frightening new disease that by then had already killed more than 20,000 Americans. The play is a polemical, largely autobiographical work written by a justifiably enraged man, and as a document of the terrifying early years of the AIDS epidemic in New York City’s gay community, its significance is historic.
Alas, 27 years removed from that urgent context, much of The Normal Heart feels as didactic and—in Arena Stage’s production of last year’s Tony-winning revival—as woodenly performed as a sixth-grade reading of the Gettysburg Address.
I’ll say it again: Context is everything. The mainstream channels weren’t listening in 1985, so Kramer had no choice but to write at the top of his lungs. Thus we have a play wherein characters regularly shut up for two to four minutes at a time so other characters can yell complete editorials at them, with statistics and citations, uninterrupted. I feel more than a little guilty for the number of times I caught myself thinking that PowerPoint would be faster. (We actually do see projected casualty lists, growing ominously as the night wears on.) This production also suffers from weirdly overcaffeinated pacing, with short blasts of disco music and, later, war drums consistently stepping on the final line of each scene.
Not that they’re great lines. As a writer of dialogue, Kramer has all of Aaron Sorkin’s preachiness but none of his musicality or wit. Our hero, writer/activist Ned Weeks, complains that the New York Times “won’t even use the word ‘gay’ unless it’s in a direct quote. To them we’re still ‘homosexuals.’ That’s like calling black men ‘negroes!’” Dr. Emma Brookner, a polio-stricken physician who investigates the disease when no one else will, casually intones, “Health is a political issue. Everyone is entitled to good medical care.” I’m Larry Kramer, and I approve this message.
David Rockwell’s set is a giant white wall embossed with ripped-from-the-headlines quotes and phrases. Like the play itself, it’s rock-solid agitprop but questionable art.
Set between 1981 and 1984, the action follows Ned as he founds an AIDS advocacy group with some acquaintances, only to be frustrated by their timidity. Ned favors the by-any-means-necessary approach to force New York City (and the Times, and the American Medical Association, and the U.S. government) to reckon with a health threat they want swept under the rug.
Ned also urges the group to pass along Dr. Brookner’s strong recommendation of abstinence until more is known about how the disease is spread, but at least one of his colleagues—the one who works for the city health department, in fact!—sees this as an unfathomable retreat from their hard-won right to “love” whomever, whenever. “What are you, a closet straight?” he asks Ned. Michael Berresse is excellent as the guy taking this position, which may arguably have seemed less crazy before it had been established that HIV is transmitted primarily via sex. If his assertion of a right to promiscuity seems loopy under the dire circumstances, it’s also one of the too-few moments when someone here actually talks like they’re not testifying before Congress.
Indeed, the play is at its best when chronicling Ned’s fraying relationship with his mostly still-closeted fellows. Kramer lived this: The playwright was a founding member of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis but left the group over philosophical differences. Ned wants his peers to be more uninhibited politically but more conservative sexually. His clashes with Bruce Niles, the handsome bank executive and former solider who is chosen over Ned as the organization’s president— even though Bruce remains in the closet and refuses to appear on television—have a believable, satisfying friction.
“The entire gay platform is fucking,” Bruce says flatly. “You make it sound like that’s all that being gay means,” Ned shoots back.
In the key role of Ned, Patrick Breen struggles to make the character sound like more than just a protest sign with legs. Nick Mennell fares much better as Bruce: His monologue about taking his sick lover home to say goodbye his mom is the most moving scene in the show. Mennell plays its shocking material resolutely at human scale, to devastating effect.
Unfortunately, few of the other performances or character relationships are as rich. Ned’s romance with a closeted Times fashion reporter, especially, plays like an afterthought included to humanize what is otherwise a shrill know-it-all of character and to give the piece some closure—even if it may really have occurred.
Walking out, you’re handed a letter from Kramer dated June 2012 that identifies the real people who inspired each principal character and concludes, “Please know that this is a plague that has been allowed to happen.” On my way home, I passed ads in the subway for drugs intended to treat “HIV-related excess belly fat.”
I’m not suggesting the AIDS crisis is over. I’m suggesting now would be an excellent time for someone to write a new play about it.