An AIDS Play to Break Your Heart

05/11/2011 4:00 AM |

The Normal Heart

Written by Larry Kramer
Directed by Joel Grey and George C. Wolfe

The Normal Heart, a withering and unwithered tirade from 1985 making its Broadway debut at The Golden (through July 10), feels both dated and infuriatingly not. Unlike its characters—early activists in the days before AIDS had a name—we know now what the disease is, what it wreaks, how it spreads; our politicians are no longer afraid to speak its name, or to devote at least some resources to its treatment and study. But, with these pioneering organizers, we can share frustration—about a disease that, 30 years later, still has no cure, that still kills in staggering numbers. “The world has suffered at the very least some 75 million infections and 35 million deaths,” playwright Larry Kramer writes in an open letter (with debatable statistics) distributed after the show. “When the action of the play… begins, there were 41.”

Kramer’s play means to educate, but also to break your fucking heart: he’s a manipulator, but to the noble end of galvanizing an audience to care about something that desperately needs your support. (Contrast it to War Horse, also currently on Broadway, which brings its audience to tears for no other reason but to bring them to tears.) One character relates a story in which, among other heartbreaking horrors, his dead-from-AIDS lover’s body is removed from a hospital in a garbage bag and tossed in an alley. If that doesn’t get you, well, there’s a deathbed wedding, too.

But Heart works so well because it’s not just an angry, confused and frightened message-play; it doubles as an acerbically witty exploration of homosexual identity in modern America—something with which our country continues to grapple in the 21st century. It’s still sadly unusual in 2011 to see a cast of gay male characters who are so dignified and dispositionally diverse: a dashing corporate type (Lee Pace, vulnerably confident), a shaggy Jewish intellectual (Joe Mantello, coiled with rage), a rumpled bureaucrat (Patrick Breen, pitiably heartbreaking), a sassy kid (Jim Parsons, funny). No one here minces or gushes about Judy Garland and fashion, even though many of them surely adore both.

Instead, these characters organize to raise awareness about, and fight, AIDS, then meet resistance from media (specifically the New York Times, which comes off almost as badly as the virus itself) and government (especially Mayor Koch, the butt of relentless gay jokes); they face challenges applicable to any political movement (should they be confrontational or accommodating?). But they also confront specifically gay issues: there are debates over promiscuity and commitment, being closeted and out, as well as explorations of the cultural attitudes that kept the straight community apathetic to this gay health crisis. (Kramer has very definite, finger-wagging opinions, but he also allows his gay and straight opponents to have their voices heard, too, with intelligence, credibility and respect. There are no blatantly bad people in Kramer’s vision, just evil institutions.) Just as much as it’s about fighting AIDS, The Normal Heart concerns repairing the gay man’s tarnished image. “Being defined by our cocks,” the play’s Kramer stand-in says, “is literally killing us.”

(photos by Joan Marcus)