Larry Kramer's The Normal Heart is an idiosyncratic, complicated play. It is, at once, a time capsule of the terrifying early days of the AIDS crisis in New York, an angry letter in a bottle to friends from the past who he felt betrayed him, and a rage-filled polemic against a prejudiced world that was about to get more prejudiced as the epidemic grew and gay sex became vilified. As Frank Rich wrote in a review of the original 1985 Off-Broadway production, the play "starts off angry, soon gets furious and then skyrockets into sheer rage." The latest production at A.C.T., directed by George C. Wolfe who also directed the recent Tony Award-winning Broadway revival, is faithful to Kramer's rage in every way, though not all the performers shoulder the burden with equal grace.
Now, to Kramer's mind, there is no way of telling this story, or of discussing HIV/AIDS in the present day, without an abundance of rage. The usefulness of that anger in bringing attention to a crisis that many in government wanted to ignore is a central theme of the play, as is the Holocaust. Kramer saw, as perhaps very few people did in 1981 in New York, that thousands or millions were going to die because of this disease, and that cowardice, embarrassment, and laziness were only going to make it happen faster. But as a piece of art, Kramer can't transcend his direct, and somewhat ego-driven ends to get anywhere new. He was and always will be more shit-stirrer than playwright, but that's not a bad thing.
The play opens, as it must, in a doctor's office in New York in 1981. Kramer's fictional stand-in, Ned Weeks, is there as a journalist to talk to a woman doctor, herself confined to a wheelchair after suffering from polio as a child. (The character of Dr. Emma Brookner is, as all the characters are, based on a real person: Dr. Linda Laubenstein who treated hundreds of the early cases of the disease known then as GRID, Gay-Related Immune Deficiency.) She examines him, determines he doesn't yet show any of the symptoms she was already accustomed to seeing, and she tells him to spread the word that gay men should stop having sex.
Weeks then goes on, as Kramer did, to help found Gay Men's Health Crisis (GMHC), to lobby people at the New York Times to write about the disease, and to pen angry screeds in the gay newspaper The New York Native telling other gay men to wake up to this crisis and do what they have to do to survive. Frighteningly for all the characters involved, no one even knew at the time how the disease was spreading, and there was no test for it. Kramer was clearly a good man to have in such a crisis, and this play was partly an effort by him to make that argument publicly, and to rub it in the face of his friends and co-founders of GMHC who ultimately kicked him out of the organization for being too confrontational. Anger like his, after all, is tough to stomach in large doses, but activism would be nowhere without it.
Which brings us to the difficulty of this production, and finding actors up to the task of delivering Kramer's dense, morally strident text. No doubt this is an important play, and its direct political ends were more prescient in 1985 when it ran for a full year at the Public Theater Kramer argues in a letter that is passed out to theater-goers exiting the theater that the plague hasn't ended, and that the play's message is as relevant as ever since so little money is put toward finding a cure for this disease, and pharmaceutical companies are doing only enough to keep HIV-positive people alive, but not to cure them. Patrick Breen, who plays Ned Weeks, does an admirable job of speeding through Kramer's monologues, but we never got the sense that he was in control of the material, gesturing awkwardly, racing over sentences to the point of incoherence, and oscillating too quickly between emotions. Likewise some of the other performers stumble a bit or punt with Kramer's dialogue (particularly Jordan Baker in the role of Emma, played most recently by Ellen Barkin), which doesn't always flow with natural rhythms and therefore requires extra care to sound real, and to pack the necessary punches. And for this we have to blame Wolfe's direction (or that of "restaging director" Leah Gardiner), but we're pretty sure he was not as hands-on as he was with a cast of celebrities on Broadway. The only actor in this production who seemed at ease and believable was Matt McGrath, who plays Felix, and who tackles the tricky task of weakening, getting sick, and ultimately dying on stage with awesome restraint.
Still, the production is well staged and conceived, with a spare but powerful set by David Rockwell. And Kramer's words still deliver a number of wallops throughout, leaving any audience member reeling with sadness and exhaustion by the play's end. If for no other reason you should see this play to be reminded that in the face of apathy and unnecessary death, anger, no matter how frightening, has its place.
The Normal Heart plays through October 7. Tickets here.