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Raúl Esparza and Billy Warlock
in The Normal Heart
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
As with everything else it affects, time changes plays. That certainly applies to The Normal Heart, which Larry Kramer wrote in a white-hot rage during the early AIDS-epidemic years and which is now being revived in a powerful Worth Street Theater Company production at The Public Theater, where the dramatic outcry was first emitted in 1985. Then, Kramer's impassioned work seemed an impossible to ignore polemical rant fueled in approximately equal parts by the author's sincere horror at the insufficient amount of attention being paid to the incipient plague and by the author's impressed view of himself as a lone wolf howling in a desert.

Slightly tweaked for the new mounting, including some dialogue written for the screen version that Barbra Streisand was supposed to produce, The Normal Heart is now perhaps as notable as anything else for being a love story. It even toys with the latest contemporary issue that has pushed AIDS from the front page as the most pressing community concern: gay marriage. Once, the fight that Ned Weeks (Raúl Esparza), Kramer's fictionalized version of himself, waged for adequate response to the epidemic seemed the major thrust of his play -- for obvious reasons. Now, the climate has changed radically enough that there's a million-dollar endowment at Kramer's alma mater, Yale, for the Larry Kramer Initiative for Lesbian and Gay Studies. As a result, the romance between relentless crusader Ned and a man called Felix Turner (Billy Warlock), who toils as a New York Times fashion reporter until he's sidelined by AIDS, seems much more central.

The story of how Ned overcomes his commitment-averse nature to co-habitate with Felix amid volatile setbacks winds through The Normal Heart. It reaches its climax in a scene that leaves their apartment a mess -- a mess allowed by director David Esbjornson to litter the stage, undoubtedly for symbolic reasons, right through to the unexpected nuptials held at the play's culmination.

Kramer certainly had a love story in mind from the get-go; otherwise, he wouldn't have so pointedly taken his title from W.H. Auden's "September 1, 1939," which is included in the program and insists that "the normal heart" wants "Not universal love / But to be loved alone." Indeed, Kramer depicts other aspects of love throughout the play by including a number of scenes involving Ned's uncomprehending straight brother Ben (Richard Bekins), a wrought-up polio-victim physician named Dr. Emma Brookner (Joanna Gleason), and a number of loving but critical friends. (Incidentally, the chief benefactor of the Yale initiative is Kramer's brother, Arthur -- another indication of how things have changed.)

For bringing the AIDS crisis to the fore during a period when officials seemed in deliberate denial, The Normal Heart now looks to have taken on the aura of a cultural artifact. Audience members who lived through that period and into an era when the plague's face has altered radically may view the play from a position of relative comfort that was unavailable to them 20 years ago, while younger people who sit through all of the Sturm und Drang may feel relieved that they were spared the experience. (This may be false solace, as is noted in the program in a quote from AIDS authority Dr. David Ho: "About 70 million have already been infected...The projection for the next decade is bad. It's going to hit 100 million but the question is if it's going to hit 200 million.")

Although six of the play's 16 scenes deal with the evolving Ned-Felix relationship and take place in Ned's apartment or elsewhere, 10 of them are devoted to Emma Brookner's mounting worry over the spread of AIDS and Ned's decision to found the Gay Men's Health Crisis with a group of friends who agree with him in theory but have increasing difficulty dealing with his operating methods. Independently wealthy and successful as a novelist and film producer -- "You never seem to do anything twice," brother Ben says to him -- Ned has no problem with being abrasive when the others find it prudent to play politics. Mickey Marcus (Fred Berman) works for the city; Bruce Niles (Mark Dobies) is a bank vice president; Tommy Boatwright (McCaleb Burnett) is a hospital administrator.

These are the scenes that give The Normal Heart its wildest fire but also signify its partial misfire. In them, Kramer writes Ned as hot-headed and aware of his temper even as he excoriates, among others, Mayor Ed Koch and The New York Times for being unconscionably slow in addressing AIDS. He does give Ned's associates opportunities to air defenses of their more conciliatory attitudes toward the high-ranking people from whom they hope to receive financial and political support. But at the end of the play, when Ned has been dismissed from GMHC by its wary board, he is depicted as a character more turned against than turning.

McCaleb Burnett, Mark Dobies, Raúl Esparza, and Fred Berman
in The Normal Heart
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
Kramer wants Ned to be the most admired figure on stage; that's an author's prerogative but it has the effect of being almost laughably self-serving. Ned never acknowledges that he might have achieved results sooner if he'd backed off at times. (Ed Koch has acknowledged that it was a mistake for him to postpone conferring with Kramer as long as he did, yet it seems plain that Koch might have acquiesced earlier if Kramer had applied softer soap. Has Kramer, for all of his invaluable contributions, done comparable reassessment? Or is he still intent on getting his way in whatever situation? During rehearsals for this production, Worth Street artistic head Jeff Cohen relinquished his directorial duties. Had the change anything to do with Kramer, who was advised by Tony Kushner to be on hand daily?)

Under David Esbjornson's perceptive guidance and on Eugene Lee's simple set of gliding furniture, the cast -- dressed by Jess Goldstein and lit by Ken Billington -- measures up to more than normal standards and maybe even up to Kramer's. As the trying, indefatigable Ned, Raúl Esparza is Heart's major throb. Perhaps something of a brilliant hothead himself (remember his Taboo storm-out?), Esparza is a virile, determined, infuriated Ned. The phrase "quick to anger" only begins to cover his sudden tirades.

Perhaps because Fred Berman has been given the script's longest harangue, he turns in the other most painfully memorable performance as a man who wants to put up with a friend but finds himself wearing out under AIDS stress. Joanna Gleason, worry furrowing her brow, rises to dramatic heights throughout but especially when rising from her wheelchair to attempt a few steps and again when addressing chilly National Institute of Health examiners. As Felix, Billy Warlock has a likeably knowing way about him in his early scenes and then communicates the character's failing health with admirable sensitivity. McCaleb Burnett's Tommy Boatwright hits solid Southern Comfort wisdom and Richard Bekins's Ben is appealing if oddly WASP-y.

Two last things about The Normal Heart: It's often very funny and still unusually, even troublingly, cogent.

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