LOVE, LOSS AND THAT'S ABOUT IT Joe Mantello, left, and John Benjamin Hickey as an angry activist and a dying New York Times reporter in the acclaimed revival of "The Normal Heart."
In November, when the Signature revival of Tony Kushner's "Angels in America" opened, theatergossip looked back at the early years of the AIDS pandemic and the plays that had documented it, all of which seemed to be scheduled for revivals this season. Now "The Normal Heart" has opened on Broadway, to ecstatic reviews.
NOBODY expected "The Normal Heart" to stun audiences with its emotional power.
Theatergoers who saw the original production of Larry Kramer's play at the Public Theater back in 1985 knew that it was what it was: a screed, a loud voice crying in the wilderness, Kramer's "J'accuse."
William Hoffman's "As Is," which opened the same year, was a far better play, everybody said. (Although you couldn't tell that from the ridiculous little revival on Theater Row this season.) Then, almost a decade later, Tony Kushner's "Angels in America" arrived, the masterpiece that defined the era.
So when there was a big celebrity reading of "The Normal Heart" last fall (with Glenn Close as the doctor) and word came down that Kramer's play would finally hit Broadway, a lot of us didn't expect much. Imagine our surprise when the production, directed by George C. Wolfe Jr. and Joel Grey and starring Joe Mantello, knocked our socks off. Granted, the production is probably much greater than the play, but when you're seated in the Golden Theater and watching the names of the dead scrolled along the walls of David Rockwell's stark set, does that really matter?
(Granted, somehow Randy Shilts's name turned up among the dead in a scene that took place in the early '80s. "And the Band Played On," Shilts's monumental AIDS book, was published in 1987, and he died in 1994. But who are we, with our record of unfortunate corrections, to point a finger?)
Back in November, we asked why the plays about AIDS were returning now. Since then we have talked to older gay men, who were around in the '80s. We've asked younger gay men, who saw the epidemic -- at least the period when it affected affluent young New Yorkers -- as ancient history. The people we asked told us: "Because there's no cure yet." "Because the younger generation doesn't understand and needs to know." "Because the younger generation of gay men is blithely having unprotected sex, trying to become H.I.V. positive, and have nicknamed the virus 'the gift.' "
Last week I found myself shaking hands with one of the producers of "The Normal Heart" at a midtown cocktail party. In a rare moment of journalistic responsibility, I said, "So, why now?" And he didn't have an answer. He just referred back to the celebrity reading, which had gone so well.
All that is absolutely clear is that something in this story about a gay activist, his dying lover and his campaign to make someone take action against a disease that was targeting gay men, has struck a nerve. The production, wildly praised by critics, has earned five major Tony nominations, including best revival of a play. Drama Desk has awarded the cast a special ensemble award. Ellen Barkin, who plays Dr. Emma Brookner, has been given a Theater World Award for her Broadway debut at age 57.
The answer may be that nothing in particular has brought the AIDS plays back to New York stages. Except what brings most productions to fruition: Producers believe that theatergoers will come to see them. The parents, the children, the sympathizers, the lovers and friends left behind. And even if we didn't know it, we were ready to relive the pain. Or, like soldiers who fought a war and then were shipped home to the routine of everyday life, we yearned to remember the passion of battle.
"The Normal Heart," by Larry Kramer, directed by Joel Grey and George C. Wolfe, Golden Theater, 232 West 45th Street, (212) 239-6200, telecharge.com. Opening night: April 27, 2011.
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