Following showings of the new Broadway revival of The Normal Heart, audiences are handed a letter written by the play’s author, Larry Kramer. Titled “Please Know,” this epistle is, like the play itself, a provocation—a cutting indictment of the bureaucratic greed, political self-interest, and apathy within the gay community that continues to stand in the way of AIDS research and education. Why is The Normal Heart still relevant? Because Kramer, in his own words, has “never seen such wrongs as this plague, in all its guises, represents, and continues to say about us all.”
The subject of this remarkable play isn’t only AIDS and what it says about us all, from gays and our friends to politicos and Big Pharma; like Kramer’s brilliant Faggots, a hilarious, fiercely intelligent, stinging, heartbreaking account of gay life in post-Stonewall New York City, it’s also about Kramer’s brutalizing anger and how he righteously turned it into a call to action. The play’s lead, writer and activist Ned Weeks, is a stand-in for Kramer, just as the nameless organization he founds, and from which he’s removed on the eve of finally getting face time with the city’s mayor, is the Gay Men’s Health Crisis. He isn’t the play’s hero exactly, but his volcanic, justified rage is very much heroic, and it fuels the text’s most devastating, customarily articulate, takedowns of the people and organizations—Koch, Reagan, The New York Times, the Centers for Disease Control, even the very gays Faggots helped to liberate—that allowed AIDS to happen.
In Faggots, Kramer addressed the shame that alienated his main character Fred from his friends, family, even himself, stunting him emotionally and making him an unhappy slut. The Normal Heart, which is as autobiographical as Faggots, could be seen as a sequel, a chronicle of a fall—the tragedy of how a libertine empire began to crumble even as its glory was still being realized. Less satirical and misunderstood (not least of which as satire) than Faggots, The Normal Heart essentially follows Kramer’s alter ego from his only novel as he tries to turn all the lessons that liberated him as a gay man into political currency.
In The Normal Heart, Fred-slash-Ned-slash-Larry needs his brother’s legal muscle for his crusade against the nameless disease that’s killing his friends, but can he accept his brother’s help if his brother doesn’t also say, at last, that he approves of Ned’s lifestyle? Ned, a part originated by Brad Davis and now played triumphantly by Joe Mantello, isn’t greedy, just a man of fierce conviction and principle. He’s the type that won’t shake the hand of his enemies, and for that he’s seen as dangerous, even by those he seeks to help.
For all his righteousness, Kramer has never struck me as a man of superior attitudes. During the volatile, confusing time period that The Normal Heart takes place, when it was unclear what AIDS actually was and how it was contracted, Kramer told gay men they needed to stop having sex, and to those freed by Faggots, his warning constituted a slap in the face. The Normal Heart, in which a struggle with contradiction and concession is built into nearly every scene, never wags a finger at its audience, and yet you never stop marveling at its moral clear-sightedness and prescience. Kramer told us so, but few listened, and for that we paid a cruel price.
Among the stars who light The Normal Heart’s stage: Ellen Barkin as a doctor (and polio survivor) who pioneered the treatment of AIDS patients; Jim Parsons as a sassy young queer who embodies, along with Lee Pace’s Bruce Niles, the gay community’s love-hate relationship toward Ned; hunky but limited Luke MacFarlane in the dual role of an early AIDS victim and a volunteer at Ned’s activist organization; and a brilliant John Benjamin Hickey (Laura Linney’s willfully homeless bro on The Big C) as the fashion writer for The New York Times who finally steals Ned’s heart and who, in the face of imminent death, opens Ned’s brother’s eyes to the wonder of love without conditions.
The Normal Heart is a primal scream delivered with great wit and valor. This new, minimalist production, co-directed by Joel Grey and George C. Wolfe, is strikingly informed by the notion that the ghosts of New York City’s first AIDS cases haunt us to this day. The stage’s walls are white, and inscribed on them are barely perceptible words (also white), some quotes, some only the names of the heroes and villains of our ongoing war against AIDS. In between scenes, the names of the disease’s earliest casualties are projected on the walls, and by the end, when too many have died to fill just the proscenium of the stage, the names are projected on the audience.
The show’s powerfully invasive aesthetic conveys the idea of our moral and political consciousness struggling to free itself from inaction. Actors in one scene often linger in the background of other scenes, sometimes reacting to the words spoken within these scenes, and because many of the real-life persons these characters are based on have passed away since the show’s original run, it’s as if we’re being asked to never forget the life and work of these foot soldiers who first took arms against this infectious disease. The stage’s walls turn black, one after another, but the actors remain, even as their characters die, and the names on the wall shine brighter, as if insisting, like Kramer’s words, on their own eminence. Yes, even in blackness, Kramer asks us to climb, scream, persevere, and never forget.
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