Last night I attended the Actor’s Fund reading of The Normal Heart directed by Joel Grey, with an all-star cast including Glenn Close, Patrick Wilson, Joe Mantello, Jack McBrayer (30 Rock), Victor Garber and Michael Cerveris, among others. This is the most interesting star line-up I’ve seen on Broadway in a while, and would be an excellent cast were this show to be staged again soon.
In 2004, when I heard the Public Theater revival was abruptly and surprisingly going to end its 2004 production in less than a week (after only 6 weeks), I decided to get a ticket right away. This production had already received some awards nominations, a plethora of excellent reviews, and there were articles about the show running until fall; and that a Broadway house had been offered for a transfer later in the year. The news of a Broadway transfer was only a week old, so I was surprised by the unexpected closure announcement in less than a week. I was lucky when I attended the next performance because even more suspiciously, someone decided that Sunday wasn’t soon enough, and that the show was to close “immediately.” This is still one of the biggest mysteries and debates in NY Theatre history.
The New York Observer in 2004, shortly after The Normal Heart’s closure published one of the best articles on the topic of “Who Killed The Normal Heart?” Find it here. Like most shows, “The audience wasn’t there.” In fact, this production was too intimate, too emotional, and too intense for people to enjoy. According to The New York Observer, the gay populations weren’t flocking to see this show either with ideas that the AIDS crisis is now “outdated” or “obsolete”. One writer claims that much of the gay community, even in 2004, was still in denial. Much like the gays in The Normal Heart who twenty years earlier, refused to acknowledge or do anything in response to the epidemic. This is a major theme of the play. Not blaming the government for the slow response and cover up of the crisis, but the denial of closeted and open homosexuals in positions of authority. As in the play, try telling the homosexual men who spent decades after Stonewall fighting for the right to sleep with men legally, that now it has become legal, they will die if they do. Even the doctors in The Normal Heart admit, that most of mankind would rather die than live without sex... And sexual transmission had not been confirmed yet.
It’s a powerful but unpleasant play. As would be any play that teeters on real life genocide, apocalypse, and those who let it happen. There is not much hope at the end of the play, but that which I found to be ironic. Ned discovers that although this unstoppable epidemic is growing, the next generation of gays are more open and allowed more freedom, than his own generation. It’s to be expected that as the open homosexual population grows, so will the AIDS epidemic, at least in visible numbers. There will be less people dying of “Cancer” and “Pneumonia” and “Anemia,” and more people dying of AIDS in the immediate years to follow.
So what does this all mean for last night’s reading? The greatest performance of the night, belongs to Joe Mantello, the highest paid director on Broadway (Wicked), in a rare turn as actor in the leading role. His character, Ned, is based roughly autobiographically on the playwright Larry Kramer, and carries the entire show. But the play is more unpleasant than Angels in America, it far predates Angels and gets in-your-face in a more condensed/historical amount of time. It’s all about the hysteria, the epidemic before their first cases of AIDS were reported, and long before AIDS was an acronym. Basically it’s play of panic. True; the panic itself is outdated, and obsolete. But it’s important to remember what people did to make matters worse. The AIDS crisis was just a plague that happened to one particular group of people, but it could have been any group, in any community. The disease knows no age, race, or gender. Another plague could be coming around the corner for me or for you, so its important that all groups of people have equal rights, not just in this country, but in the entire world. The play is important as a singular work, but I doubt it would ever work again as an extended run production.