Larry Kramer is no shrinking violet. Screenwriter (Women in Love), AIDS activist/provocateur (he co-founded NYC's Gay Men's Health Crisis and ACT-UP) and novelist (Faggots), Kramer always says what he thinks in a take-no-prisoners style that constantly gets him in hot water with politically correct types.
His prescient novel Faggots, published in 1978, graphically detailed -- and railed against -- the hedonistic gay scene of NYC during the era, with its soulless, disease-spreading anonymous sex. He received death threats; his best friends turned against him; the nascent gay press condemned him; and NYC's lone gay bookstore banned the book. In response to the government and medical institutions' inaction in the face of the burgeoning deadly calamity of AIDS, especially the administration of New York mayor Ed Koch, Kramer co-founded the Gay Men's Health Crisis in 1982. It was the first service organization to provide health care and necessary information to patients in need. A year later, Kramer was kicked off the GMHC board for his unrelenting quest to close gay bathhouses and his insistence that safer sex -- if not outright monogamy -- was the answer to the new plague. Later, still butting his head against recalcitrant bureaucrats, Kramer formed ACT-UP, a civil disobedience coalition whose street-theater protests tied up traffic, shouted down pious legislators and successfully browbeat drug manufacturers for cheaper, easily obtainable medicines. Through it all, Kramer was the gay movement's Cassandra, warning of dire consequences if gays didn't shape up and change their behavior. When the AIDS pandemic finally was recognized as the horror it was, Kramer was proved right. People hated him for that, too.
Kramer's unofficial title is "Angriest Gay Man in America," and his semiautobiographical play The Normal Heart, which premiered in 1985, is his revenge -- and his testament. Though not the first in the subgenre of gay theater known as AIDS plays (that would probably be Jeffrey Hagedorn's 1983 one-acter One), Heart is certifiably the best. A primer on the physical and emotional beginnings of AIDS, the story is imbued with paint-blistering condemnation, righteous anger and bitchy humor. Both screed and prayer, it's a profound tribute to those who died through negligence and bureaucratic inefficiency, as well as a rousing call to action to those left standing. Like some biblical prophet who sees the destructive whirlwind on the horizon, Kramer blows the trumpets, cajoles, beats his breast and rends his hair; he shouts, cries and laughs to get our attention. He's the strict schoolmarm with birch switch ready to punish; the forgiving father eager to embrace his prodigal son; the ardent lover willing to defy the world for a kiss.
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Theatre New West's production, under the stylish and prudent direction of Joe Watts, is everything Kramer's drama aims to be, and then some. In the intimate space of the Bering & James Gallery, the play is right in our faces. The downsizing condenses the heat and focuses the message. With Watts's lower-wattage approach, the anger and frustration, so much an essential element in Kramer, is accumulative; intensity remains, but without resorting to screams and rants. The play builds inexorably, so that the final scene, the quiet hospital-bedside wedding between protagonist Ned (Steve Bullitt) and dying partner Felix (Joseph Zoellers), becomes overwhelming -- the distillation of all that's come before. It has showstopping (and heart-stopping) impact.
A writer on health issues, Ned Weeks (Kramer's alter ego) realizes there's something ominous in the unexpected rise of opportunistic infections, purple lesions and bone-weariness among his gay friends and acquaintances. A new cancer is spreading, and no one has a clue or a cure. Ned's doctor, the wheelchair-bound Emma Brookner (Sage Holli Bara), warns him that sex may hold the answer and advises him to pass the word. Knowing that a "no sex" policy among gay men is "a tiny bit unrealistic," and that contemporary gays unconditionally affirm a "party and fuck" line, Ned struggles against the establishment, family, his friends, the medical profession and within himself to wage war against the disease and its insidious effects upon all. Whatever the consequences, he will fight for responsibility within the community.
The production is marvelously cast with an acting dream team. Bullitt's self-effacing dignity grounds them all. He's not as prickly as the real-life Kramer, and his subtler indignation and frustration give Ned more sympathy. Warm and believable, he's one of us, not a legend descending from on high with holy commandments. When he incants the list of renowned gay men throughout history (the play's most quoted scene): "I belong to a culture that includes Proust, Henry James, Tchaikovsky, Cole Porter, Plato, Socrates," Bullitt's clenched-jaw reading is as deafening as a thunder clap. Everyone else rises to his example: Bara's wise, impatient doctor; Wes Copeland's conflicted brother Ben, torn between a brother's love and uninformed intolerance; Glen Fillmore's closeted former Green Beret; Brett Cullum's middle-of-the-road Mickey; Lance Marshall's zingy queen Tommy; Zoellers's Felix, who sees the light before it's too late; and supporting players Ryan Thomas Heitzman and Robert Martinez, who play multiple roles.
Kramer's dramatic roman clef can be strident, one-sided and full of cold statistics as he eviscerates foes and fair-weather friends, but his play carries its magnificent crusader's heart on its sleeve. It's a unique work for the theater, like much of Kramer's beneficial, life-enhancing work off stage.