RIP Larry Kramer 84, playwright of The Normal Heart, AIDS activist: “Almost more than talent you need tenacity”

Larry Kramer, who wrote “The Normal Heart” and founded GMHC (the Gay Mens Health Crisis) and ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) has died at age 84.

Kramer’s obituary

In 2011, The Normal Heart, which was about AIDS and AIDS activists, was revived on Broadway, where it won the Tony Award for best revival of a play. An HBO adaptation that Kramer wrote won the 2014 Emmy for outstanding television movie.

Here is a repost of my Broadway review of the play, from April 2011:

Theatergoers leaving “The Normal Heart,” a revival of the 1985 play about the AIDS crisis, were greeted by activist Larry Kramer handing out a leaflet from the curb. He was not urging a boycott; it is, after all, his play. The leaflet brought us up to date on AIDS: Since the AIDS epidemic was first identified, 35 million people have died of it. “When the action of the play that you have just seen begins,” Kramer writes, “there were 41.”

A couple of things about this made me curious, and since the playwright was standing right there, I asked him two questions:

1. Why didn’t he just insert the leaflet in the Playbill? “I wanted you to see the play first,” Larry Kramer explained.

2. If the mayor of New York City, who is one of those blasted in the play for inaction, had responded right away to the news of the 41, how would things have wound up differently? “That’s a dumb question,” Larry Kramer replied. “Use your imagination.”

And there in our interaction I thought I detected a taste of “The Normal Heart” itself. This story of the early years of the AIDS epidemic, being given a first-rate production with an impressive cast at the John Golden Theater, is informative, unwieldy, thought-provoking, didactic, exasperating and, in the end, deeply moving – and it requires an in-your-face confrontation not only with the facts of AIDS but also with the personality of Larry Kramer.

“The Normal Heart” revolves around Kramer’s obvious stand-in, Ned Weeks, a writer who describes himself as an angry loud-mouth, played in this production by Joe Mantello, returning to acting after almost two decades as a successful director (“Wicked,” “Assassins”) But Kramer is also present in the character of Emma, played by Ellen Barkin, one of the first physicians to see patients in 1981 with a strange new disease that seemed to affect only gay men.

Worried after reading a short article in the New York Times about it, Ned visits Emma in her office, and she all but anoints him to lead the fight. “Someone has to. Why not you?” In more than a dozen scenes, we see Ned argue with a writer from the New York Times, with a New York City official, with his own brother, but mostly with the other gay men who found an unnamed organization (clearly the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, GMHC) – and we see Emma argue with a federal health official who denies her funding — in what amounts to a series of indictments of all levels of government, health officials, the press, and the gay community itself for their failure to respond quickly and effectively to the epidemic.

“There’s not a good word to be said for anybody’s behavior in this mess,” a character (not Ned) says, but it is Larry Kramer speaking. While Kramer offers insightful general points about the reasons for the neglect, he also makes specific accusations that too often seem personal, one-sided, and unsubstantiated. An aide to the New York City mayor is depicted as somebody not just insufficiently responsive but uncaring, even brutish and threatening, and when the mayor (unnamed, but Ed Koch) has finally agreed to meet with the gay groups about AIDS, Ned says: “He’s the one person most responsible for letting this epidemic get out of control.”

I am not equipped to argue knowledgeably with this statement, but the assertion raises more questions than it answers (which is why I asked the playwright about it). In a foreword to the published script, Joseph Papp, who put on “The Normal Heart” at the Public in 1985 in what was then considered an act of courage, wrote: “I love the ardor of this play, its howling, its terror and its kindness.” In a later interview, he recounted his reaction to the initial script: “I said ‘This is one of the worst things I’ve ever read,’ and I was crying…There was so much feeling in the play, I was moved.” Even after extensive revisions, the director of its 1985 production, Michael Lindsay-Hogg, compared the play to a heavyweight boxer who “misses sometimes, but if he connected, it would really snap your head back.” In his 1985 New York Times review, Frank Rich wrote that “Mr. Kramer’s theatrical talents are not always as highly developed as his conscience.”

The current production of “The Normal Heart” began as a benefit reading, and has the feeling of a group effort by the theater on behalf of a cause, a fundraiser – and indeed a spokesman for the show says that the production has a “financial commitment” to The Actors Fund, amfAR, Friends in Deed and the Human Rights Campaign (It is interesting but unsurprising that GMHC is not included.) All of this might lead one to expect that the revival of “The Normal Heart” would be a political, historical, even anthropological experience rather than a theatrically satisfying one.

It is certainly true that “The Normal Heart” is not the best play to deal with AIDS (nor was it the first – William Hoffman’s “As Is” opened a month before “The Normal Heart” Off-Broadway and 26 years before “The Normal Heart” on Broadway).

But “The Normal Heart” can be appreciated as a play, rather than as a cause or a series of hectoring lectures, for several reasons. Part of it is the touch of the directors, Joel Grey and George C. Wolfe. Grey took over the role of Ned in the original production from Brad Davis (who, in a tragic irony, was diagnosed with AIDS that same year.) Grey, who also performs in the current revival of ‘Anything Goes,” asked former Public Theater artistic director Wolfe to co-direct “The Normal Heart.” David Rockwell’s set is stark, with little furniture, either all white and inlaid with words and catchphrases from the AIDS crisis, or a projection of the growing number of names of people who died of AIDS. (Both of these are a clever reflection of the kind of graphics created by AIDS activists.)

There are little moments meant to shock — in the first scene, in the doctor’s office, the first patient with AIDS we see looks normal, until he turns around to face his friends, and we see that the other side of his face is covered with the tell-tale bruises of kaposi sarcoma. Similarly, it takes us a while to realize that Emma is in a wheelchair, the result of a childhood bout with polio.

It is fascinating to witness the interaction among the various gay men trying to fashion a response and deal with their own panic, and to hear the now-forgotten debates that divided the community over what would be the best approach.

The production attempts to place these arguments in context with a quick opening montage of photographs, posters, buttons glimpsing the efforts over the previous decade to assert gay pride in the face of anti-gay prejudice. Sex, for some, was seen as liberation, which is why some resisted the effort to curtail it, fearing a return to the days before Stonewall, when simply sitting in a gay bar put you in danger of arrest.

Most to the point, when Kramer allows other characters besides his stand-ins to have the floor, that floor becomes more like a stage, and the characters are permitted to reveal more than just their political viewpoints. There is a story about the horrible treatment by airline and hospital personnel toward a dying man, told by his lover Bruce, the ex-Green Beret who is in the closet (played by Lee Pace, best-known for his role as Ned on “Pushing Daisies”). Patrick Breen (“Next Fall”) plays Mickey, a health department employee who is wracked by guilt and anxiety. Jim Parsons (who plays Sheldon Cooper on “The Big Bang Theory”) is charming and believable as the conciliatory Tommy. The character above all that turns “The Normal Heart” into a drama is Felix Turner, a gay New York Times style reporter who becomes Ned’s lover. Felix is played exquisitely by John Benjamin Hickey, currently known for the role of Laura Linney’s brother on the Showtime series “The Big C.” Felix functions as welcome puncture and punctuation to Ned’s self-serious rants. When, during an early date, Ned lectures Felix on how the world allowed Jews to perish during the Holocaust, Felix drily remarks: “This is turning out to be a very romantic evening.” It is Felix — amiable, likable, wry, non-political – who discovers a purple bruise on his foot, and with whom we share the debilitating, humiliating journey through a disease that, a quarter of a century later, still has no cure.

Information about AIDS from the National Institutes of Health.
AIDS, Anger and Assholes: The Normal Heart Review”
At the John Golden Theater Written by Larry Kramer Directed by Joel Grey and George C. Wolfe Scenic design by David Rockwell, costume design by Martin Pakledinaz, lighting by David Weiner, sound by David Van Tieghen, projections by Batwin & Robin Cast: Joe Mantello, Ellen Barkin, John Benjamin Hickey, Patrick Breen, Luke MacFarlane, Lee Pace, Jim Parsons, Mark Harelik, Richard Topol, Wayne Wilcox Running time: 2 hours and 35 minutes, including a 15-minute intermission Ticket prices: $26.50 to $116.50.

“The Normal Heart” was the only play of his to be produced on Broadway. He wrote several others, including a kind of sequel to “The Normal Heart” in 1992, entitled “The Destiny of Me,” which was a more personal look at his stand-in character Ned Weeks.
In the introduction to the published text, he wrote “almost more than talent you need tenacity, and an infinite capacity for rejection, if you are to succeed. I still don’t know where you get these, even after writing this play to find the answer. I guess that’s what my play is about. I guess that’s what my life’s been about….there is no change without tenacity.”

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Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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