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The Normal Heart

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Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post

Editorial Review

REVIEW: A superb ‘Normal Heart’ at Arena Stage
By Peter Marks
Monday, June 18, 2012

In the final 40 minutes of the flawless Arena Stage revival of “The Normal Heart,” one harrowing meltdown seems to incite another -- a cascade of anguish as a terrifyingly unknowable killer bears down on a great metropolis.

It starts with Michael Berresse’s shattering speech as Mickey, a gay city-health employee, crumbling under the weight of the body count. It builds in the heartbreaking account by Nick Mennell, as ex-Green Beret Bruce, of the humiliations endured by his dying lover on a last flight home. It shifts into fever pitch as Patricia Wettig, playing a New York physician treating men with AIDS even before the disease has a name, all but loses it as she denounces a medical and government establishment that has cast her adrift with the dead and dying.

By the time the remarkable Patrick Breen, as the piece’s antagonistic protagonist, Ned, delivers an impassioned eulogy over the gay community’s failure to fight for its own, your nerves are so frayed and your tear ducts given such a workout that sitting still and untouched becomes an insurmountable challenge.

“The Normal Heart,” written by Larry Kramer and first seen in New York in 1985, has taken an unconscionably long time to be produced at a top-of-the-line theater here (Washington Shakespeare Company staged it in the mid-1990s). But in director George C. Wolfe’s stark, fleet and passionately raw production, amends begin to be made for that sin of omission. The show, in Arena’s Kreeger Theater, is a kissing cousin to the Broadway mounting by Wolfe last year starring Joe Mantello, Ellen Barkin and John Benjamin Hickey that won the Tony for best revival. And the Washington version is in every respect a superb descendant.

For Wolfe, the former artistic head of New York’s Joseph Papp Public Theater, has discovered the essence of “The Normal Heart.” It’s not in its righteous, Cassandra-like polemic, which seemed so furious and provocative in the early days of the AIDS plague that it was all anybody talked about. What makes the play so vibrant today -- and what ensures its place in the annals of important American drama -- is that Wolfe has shown us “The Normal Heart’s” fragile beating heart.

It certainly exposes an urgent deficiency in public health policy, one that will resonate with many participants of the International AIDS Conference to be held in Washington in late July (when the play will still be running). The big second-act speech by Wettig’s Emma Brookner, expressing an anger at institutional foot-dragging and elitism that appears to issue in bolts from the actress’s spleen, can’t help but strike a chord with any researcher who sees what others have yet to.

But a theatergoer of any age or background can relate to what Wolfe and the 10 members of his crackerjack cast identify as the dramatic fuels of “The Normal Heart”: the panicked sense of helplessness as men’s bodies erupt in sores and they quickly die; the numbing terror as an epidemic spreads and a realization sinks in that society is not rallying to your side; the bottomless anger in feeling that your own community’s behavior is making matters worse; the sledgehammering wallop of reality that comes with letting a loved one go.

“The Normal Heart” recounts the early ’80s in New York, as Breen’s Ned, a writer, attempts to spur gay men to political action, through the AIDS activism of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (a group Kramer co-founded). It’s a portrait of the cross-currents of gay life as Ned sees them, with regard to the forces causing the disease to spread: the ingrained prejudices of straight society toward homosexuality, and the reluctance of gay men, just beginning to explore the boundaries of sexual liberation, to give up that freedom to stop the contagion.

“The only way we’ll have real pride is when we demand recognition of a culture that isn’t just sexual,” Ned declares in his despairing summation, as the group he’s nurtured, fed up with his harangues, votes him out. What humanizes Ned for us, softens his hyper-abrasiveness, is his love affair with Felix (a smashing and ultimately endearing Luke Macfarlane), a New York Times fashion writer who seems to have it all, and then loses it all to sickness.

Wolfe never lets us forget that this is not only drama, but also history. On the white walls of David Rockwell’s stirring scenery are carved inscriptions of emblematic words and phrases from the days when AIDS entered our vocabulary, terms such as Patient Zero and pneumocystis pneumonia. The set could even be the blueprint for a memorial.

The words that resound with the most emotion, however, materialize in projections on the walls that intermittently become screens for the names of the actual dead. In an echo of the themes of Randy Shilts’s nonfiction account of the crisis, “And the Band Played On,” the honor roll of the AIDS dead grows and grows over the two hours of “The Normal Heart,” dying proof that little is being done.

The living proof is in the emphatic performances, starting with Breen, who tempers Ned’s obnoxious self-righteousness with layers of warmth and integrity. Wettig is a sensational successor to Barkin; the control that medical authority confers transforms into an unhinged outrage as Wettig’s Emma looks upon her own futility. Berresse, known primarily for work in musicals, is here a revelation. And in other key turns, Christopher J. Hanke and John Procaccino develop textured portrayals for, respectively, an AIDS volunteer and Ned’s loving if conflicted older brother.

You come to understand in the naked fury of “The Normal Heart” that the voices of history can, in fact, feel as if they are speaking directly to you. And in Wolfe’s wrenchingly devastating treatment, the ghosts speak loudest of all.

PREVIEW: ‘Overnight’ success for searing 1985 drama
By Peter Marks
Sunday, June 3, 2012

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 afterward, 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.”