A rage born of grief fueled Larry Kramer’s “The Normal Heart” back in 1985, when it first exploded onto the New York theater landscape, exposing the confluence of factors that allowed the outbreak of a mysterious disease among gay men to bloom into one of history’s plagues. Almost two decades have passed, and many more grim chapters in the history of the AIDS epidemic have been written — as has a defining work of theater about the plague’s impact on American life. But fears that the first major New York revival of Kramer’s play would reveal it to be a dusty, dated document of mere historical interest turn out to be unfounded. The fierce feeling that seethed in every line of Kramer’s play still burns white hot and gives the play an immediacy little dimmed by the passage of 20 years.
David Esbjornson’s staging for the Worth Street Theater Co. (in residence at the Public, where “The Normal Heart” was first produced) is not without flaws. For that matter, neither is Kramer’s unwieldy play. But even when it is clumsy or strident, or both, the writing blisters with conviction and heart.
The play distills the terrible events it depicts in a strong solution of fact and feeling, and they retain their power to move, enrage, shame. The emotional distance that two decades might be expected to provide is obliterated: The production acts almost like a time machine, transporting the audience back to the era it depicts with disorienting intensity.
The play opens in 1981, in a hospital where Ned Weeks (Raul Esparza), the central character not so loosely based on Kramer himself, watches a friend battling mysterious ailments receive a terrible prognosis: “I’m going to die,” he says, terrified and astonished. So are most of the many gay patients of the plain-spoken Dr. Emma Brookner (Joanna Gleason), who doesn’t know what she’s up against, but knows it’s a health care disaster of potentially devastating proportions.
The scene that follows, in which Ned interrogates Dr. Brookner about the disease, is a wordy, fact-filled primer summarizing the cultural context that would allow AIDS to spread unchecked for months and even years: the utter ignorance of causes, let alone clues for a cure; the institutional indifference in medical circles (“Nobody important is going to give a damn because it seems to be happening mostly to gay men”); the conservative cultural climate of the city, typified by the squeamishness of the New York Times (“They won’t even use the word ‘gay’ unless it’s in a direct quote”); the sexcentric gay culture that would violently resist early suggestions linking the mysterious new disease to sex (“You are talking about millions of men who have singled out promiscuity to be their principal political agenda”).
Challenged by Brookner to spread the word, Ned goes on a one-man crusade, using his bad temper and big mouth to rattle as many cages as he can. With a few friends, he founds an organization devoted to raising money, fighting for institutional attention and inciting action in the gay community. (Kramer co-founded — and was ultimately expelled from — Gay Men’s Health Crisis, although the play never names the org.)
He badgers — then befriends — a reporter for the New York Times. He relentlessly taunts a friend who works for the city’s health commissioner but is too afraid for his job to press for action from above. He excoriates the rich, closeted gays in high-profile positions who refuse to risk their comfortable lives by committing themselves to the cause. He tirelessly hounds the office of Mayor Ed Koch, who remains cruelly insulated from the disease even as it claims the lives of hundreds of his supposed constituents. And, oh yes, he falls in love (with that Times reporter); watches friend after friend die; and squabbles with his bigshot lawyer brother, who loves Ned but patronizes him, too.
Given its ambitious agenda, the play really shouldn’t work as well as it does. It’s an unruly piece of writing, part cri de coeur, part polemic. Ned seems to carry around his own personal soapbox, and he steps onto it at least once in every scene to deliver a stinging piece of oratory clearly aimed past the footlights at the conscience of the audience (and at Kramer’s many detractors). Journalism and soap opera jostle for equal time onstage, and there is ample scope for excesses of both in the course of the play’s nearly three-hour running time.
But the play’s emotional power, deriving from its firsthand depiction of gay men’s suffering, striving and confusion in agonizing times, allows it to transcend its dramaturgical weaknesses. The cardboard flavor of scenes overstuffed with information or indictment is erased quickly by moments of wounding intensity: Ned begging his brother to accept that his sexuality is not a flaw in his makeup, the harrowing description of a dying man’s humiliation at the hands of frightened, ignorant hospital workers.
Esparza gives a captivating performance in the central role. Even on those rare occasions when Ned is a mere observer, Esparza’s glowering presence draws the attention. Vivid and emotionally unrestrained (and just occasionally excessive), his perf has balefully funny moments, too: Faced with the prospect of physical intimacy on a date, Ned’s neurotic insecurity goes into overdrive, and he lapses into a diatribe equating gay men’s complacency in the face of the disease with European Jews’ behavior during World War II.
The supporting cast is mostly terrific. As Ned’s lover Felix, ex-“Baywatch” beauty Billy Warlock is sincere and nicely understated. Ned’s trio of allies-turned-combatants at the activist organization are sharply drawn types, crisply performed: Mark Dobies as the clean-cut corporate fellow who is deemed a more effective figurehead than the abrasive Ned; Fred Berman as the health care worker driven to an emotional breakdown; McCaleb Burnett as the drawling, quip-ready Southern boy who acts as mediator at the group’s increasingly contentious meetings.
A couple of performances do not feel fully engaged. The dry Richard Bekins seems miscast as Ned’s brother; the characters don’t seem to have come from the same country, let alone the same family. And Gleason overplays the Germanic stoicism of Brookner in the play’s info-filled early scenes, which gets the play off to a sluggish start. Her perf ignites only in the galvanizing scene in which she rails at the obstructive policies of her medical superiors.
That scene concludes with Brookner splattering the stage with case files in a fit of rage. They remain onstage for the rest of the play, and are joined by various foodstuffs when the mutual suffering of Ned and his dying lover erupt into an emotionally harrowing argument that finds Ned violently demolishing a bag of groceries. Perhaps a satisfying moment of theatrical catharsis back in 1985, the effect feels forced and distracting in the current revival, when the emotions the play conjures are somewhat tempered, for many in the aud, by two decades of experience.
But “The Normal Heart” concludes with a moment that seems uncannily in sync with today’s headlines, as Brookner presides over a deathbed marriage ceremony between Ned and Felix. A piping-hot piece of agitprop newly interpolated by the ever-engaged Mr. Kramer? In fact, no — straight from the original play.
A second encounter with “The Normal Heart” may give rise to reflections on how much attitudes toward homosexuality have evolved in the past 20 years — and, alas, at what terrible cost — but the play’s peculiarly prescient conclusion is a reminder of the barriers yet to be breached.