Larry Kramer's scalding ‘The Normal Heart’ comes to Arena Stage


Playwright Larry Kramer of the production 'The Normal Heart' with his dog Charlie in his apartment in Manhattan. (Melanie Burford/For The Washington Post)

If there was a road map for breakout theatrical success, “The Normal Heart” misplaced its copy. Larry Kramer’s much-admired, alarm-bell-ringing 1985 drama about the spread of AIDS through the gay community had already been revived many times — and off-Broadway as recently as 2004 — when a plan was hurriedly hatched last year to give it a Broadway debut.

A theater, the Golden, had suddenly become available, and a powerhouse cast that included Joe Mantello, Jim Parsons and Ellen Barkin had been assembled. Originally envisioned in the more modest format of a reading, which would allow the actors to bring their scripts onstage, the revival underwent a last-minute upgrade to a fully staged production, requiring director George C. Wolfe to compress a normal four- or five-week rehearsal schedule into an unheard-of 12 days.

Not exactly reassuring preparation for the nation’s most visible theatrical platform. But the unlikely events that followed — across-the-board sparkling reviews; three Tony Awards, including one for outstanding revival; and the extension of the limited run — bathed this passionate, sobering play in the surprising aura of a commercial hit. And with the scale of that triumph, “The Normal Heart” lives on, both as a planned film (to be directed by “Glee” creator Ryan Murphy) and, more immediately, a re-mounting of the Broadway production at Arena Stage, where the Tony-winning Wolfe, former head of New York’s Public Theater, is making his D.C. directorial debut.

Astonishingly, the engagement, which begins Friday and runs through July 29 in Arena’s Kreeger Theater, represents the first staging of “The Normal Heart” by one of the city’s front-line theater companies; Arlington’s Washington Shakespeare Company produced it in 1995. That Washington has treated it as less than essential to a theater diet is a matter of some perplexity to the 76-year-old Kramer, who regards himself as a native son: He moved with his family from Connecticut to Prince George’s County as a boy, grew up in Mount Rainier and graduated from Woodrow Wilson High School in the District.

But with the timing of this “Normal Heart” — added to Arena’s 2011-12 lineup after a new musical, adapted from “Like Water for Chocolate,” was scrubbed — all just might be forgiven. For this production, featuring two actors from the Broadway incarnation, Patrick Breen and Luke MacFarlane, moving up into the lead roles, arrives at a propitious moment. It will be playing while the 19th International Aids Conference is taking place in Washington. And it’s the fervent wish of Kramer, a writer-activist who co-founded both the Gay Men’s Health Crisis and the more militant ACT UP, that after all these years, the dying and angry voices of “The Normal Heart” get another chance to whisper and shout to the powerful.

“Dr. Fauci is going,” Kramer declares, as he settles into a couch in the living room of his Greenwich Village apartment. Although it takes place in 1981 to ’84 — beginning before the disease even had a name — Kramer’s wish is that the play be treated as contemporarily relevant, not as a period piece. That he’s been assured of an RSVP from Anthony Fauci, a central figure in AIDS research and director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, gives the playwright a lift. He’s a bit unsure about who the audience in Washington will be for the play — he’s asked that an invitation be extended to the Obamas — but Fauci strikes him as a good start.

“I want to stick him in front,” Kramer says, as his little dog Charley struts in and out of the room.

It has always been thus for Kramer: wanting to amplify his themes, his characters’ furious arias, as though the stage were his megaphone. During the Broadway run of “Heart,” he had proposed distributing fliers to patrons inside the theater about the state of the epidemic today. He was persuaded to hand them out on the street outside the Golden Theatre instead, and on several nights he did just that, a frail-looking septuagenarian—he’s HIV-positive, and losing his hearing — leafleting people who had just shelled out 100 bucks or more to hear his words.

“Please know that no country in the world, including this one, especially this one, has ever called it a plague, or acknowledged it as a plague, or dealt with it as a plague,” his letter declares. “Please know there is no cure. Please know that after all this time the amount of money being spent to find a cure is still minuscule, still almost invisible, still impossible to locate in any national health budget, and still totally uncoordinated…

“Please know that this is a plague that need not have happened,” the leaflet ends. “Please know that this is a plague that has been allowed to happen.”

Back in the ’80s, after Kramer gave “The Normal Heart” to Public Theater impresario Joseph Papp, the piece — with its unvarnished denunciations of then-New York City Mayor Ed Koch and institutions such as the New York Times, for failing to respond to the mounting deaths of gay men — was considered so incendiary that Papp felt he had to call Koch and then-Times Executive Editor Abe Rosenthal to warn them about its contents. Kramer says that, during previews at off-Broadway’s Public, “The Times sends lawyers, and they’re writing things down with flashlights.” (The paper took the highly unusual step of appending to Frank Rich’s mixed 1985 review a statement denying Kramer’s assertions.)

It may have been at the time that Kramer’s material was so raw and provocative that analysts could not see all of its virtues, such as the emotional potency of characters such as Ned Weeks, the abrasive protagonist who nurses a dying lover while alienating even close allies in his zeal to draw attention to the crisis.

“The play is a horror movie,” Wolfe says. “You wake up one day, and a monster starts killing people. And the thing is, nobody knows at first what the monster is.”

Wolfe, whose direction of “Angels in America” and “Bring in da Noise/Bring in da Funk” won him Tonys in the ’90s, says the impression “The Normal Heart” leaves, of a playwright shouting at the top of his lungs, is a function of the peculiar time in which it was written, and what it set out to achieve. “When ‘The Normal Heart’ was first done, there was a war zone,” he says. “And when you are at war, you have to fight with your strongest guns. To me, the play becomes about how the strongest weapon you have is your language, and your heart.”

Kramer was himself a lightning-rod figure as the AIDS epidemic exploded, railing against promiscuity at a time when gay men wanted nothing less than one of their own telling them they couldn’t do as they pleased. The currency of the play is, in part, that many younger people, unversed in the history of the disease, no longer view it as a significant threat because of advances in treatment. (“Please know that there is no cure,” Kramer writes in his flier.)

“We had a mission to tell this story,” says Breen, who played one of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis workers on Broadway. He has assumed the role of Ned for the Arena run and is scheduled to play him afterwards, if the production can book additional cities (a task proving harder than expected). “I was in London, staying at a friend’s house,” he adds, “and I asked what’s the situation with AIDS. And they told me some kids want to be MADE positive —‘ Pos me up,’ they say.” For some of them, it seems, contracting HIV is a bit like getting a tattoo.

“Clearly, ‘The Normal Heart’ is meant for a younger generation to understand the legacy and what’s going on, and for an older generation it’s like a remembrance,” says Daryl Roth, the producer who shepherded the play to Broadway and is looking for other venues in which to present it. “Twenty-five years ago, it was so in-your-face it was difficult to absorb. Now, people can recognize it was a beautiful piece of writing.”

Kramer is still writing. At the moment he’s trying to boil down the monumental book on American history and AIDS that he’s been working on for years, a tome extending to something like 4,000 pages, in which the author says he will argue that George Washington and Abraham Lincoln were gay. He discloses that he is also contemplating a musical about a gay romance.

Right now, though, he’s allowing himself to savor the embrace of “The Normal Heart” and the discovery of some of its neglected strengths. “When George Wolfe says it’s a great play,” Kramer confides, “I quiver.”

The Normal Heart

By Larry Kramer. Directed by George C. Wolfe. Friday through July 29 at Arena Stage, 1101 6th St. SW. Visit www.arenastage.org or call 202-488-3300.

Peter Marks joined the Washington Post as its chief theater critic in 2002. Prior to that he worked for nine years at the New York Times, on the culture, metropolitan and national desks, and spent about four years as its off-Broadway drama critic.
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