David Cromer, Patrick Andrews, and Mary Beth Fisher
David Cromer, Patrick Andrews, and Mary Beth Fisher Credit: Lara Goetsch

With regard to the AIDS plague, Larry Kramer was a first responder. In 1982, when the Centers for Disease Control acknowledged that gay men were dying in epidemic numbers from a “cancer” no one yet understood, Kramer ran toward the fire, as they say, rather than from it. He became what a colleague from the period calls “the principal and guiding force behind the establishment of Gay Men’s Health Crisis,” a Manhattan-based organization that still provides counseling and legal support. Five years later, frustrated with GMHC’s political reticence in an environment where President Reagan and New York mayor Ed Koch ignored AIDS except to demonize its victims, the notoriously argumentative Kramer instigated the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, whose famous slogan was “Silence = Death.”

In between GMHC and ACT UP, Kramer wrote The Normal Heart: a play about a notoriously argumentative gay New Yorker who starts an AIDS support organization only to find himself struggling against its political reticence while elected officials refuse to act and men die all around him.

There’s no denying that The Normal Heart was a pioneering piece of work—as important, in its way, as any of Kramer’s other achievements, since it helped put AIDS right under the nose of a culture that was just as happy either to forget about it or think of it a fair price for gay immorality. (Pat Buchanan, 1983: “The poor homosexuals. They have declared war on nature and now nature is exacting an awful retribution.”) When The Normal Heart premiered at the Public Theater in 1985, it was—along with William Hoffman’s As Is—one of the first shows to look at the epidemic from the point of view of those whose lives were being devastated by it.

And The Normal Heart remains important, too. Memories are short and porous, so there’s great value in the recent bustle around the play, including a Broadway run (2011), a TV movie (set to air in 2014, with a cast featuring Mark Ruffalo, Julia Roberts, and such extravagantly talented Chicago-bred actors as Denis O’Hare, Finn Wittrock, and Chris Sullivan), as well as a sharp, if flawed, current production from TimeLine Theatre.

The question is, do “pioneering” and “important” necessarily equal good?

Depends on what you mean by “good.” Kramer himself has suggested that he designed the play primarily as agit-prop, and considered it a failure on that basis. “It always moves a writer to think that he is able to provoke people,” he told the New York Times‘s Don Shewey in 1987. “But I don’t personally think that I accomplished what I hoped to do. We’re entering the seventh year of the epidemic, and we still have a government, a Mayor and a President who are all very ignoble on the AIDS issue.”

But you don’t have to judge Kramer’s intentions by his extracurricular comments alone. The script speaks loudly enough. There’s a tough doctor, Emma Brookner (reportedly based on the real-life AIDS researcher Linda Laubenstein), whose textual functions are, first, to provide a suitably horrific description of AIDS as it appears among early victims and, second, to register outrage when the medical establishment refuses to appreciate the magnitude of the disaster represented by the disease. Similarly Kramer gives his alter ego, Ned Weeks, lots of deliciously outsize harangues on pretty much every subject that irked the playwright. With perhaps one exception—a queen named Mickey, beautifully underplayed here by Stephen Rader, who breaks down under the pressure of persecution—everyone else onstage is either a foil or a mirror.

Ned Weeks will do anything to push his cause, and so does Kramer in the course of The Normal Heart. When Kramer calculates that he needs our tears, he gives us a deathbed scene that pulls no melodramatic punches. It’s effective insofar as it produces the aimed-for sniffles, but it actually subverts Kramer’s avowed desire to provoke. He would’ve done better to remember Bertolt Brecht’s axiom that people who get catharsis inside a theater rarely seek it on the streets.

Overall you can see why The Normal Heart didn’t trigger the revolution Kramer says he was looking for. His delight in the polemicist ultimately overpowers the polemic. Ned Weeks is forever talking about what a rash, abrasive fellow he is, and Kramer is clearly charmed. In his fascination, he plumbs the humor, anger, and despair in Weeks’s ungovernable and self-defeating personality, which ultimately supplants the struggle as the true heart of the play.

That may not be good politics, but it creates the possibility of a very juicy performance. David Cromer never gets at the juice, though. His Weeks is initially so diffident that we don’t believe him when he says he frightens others away. Later, his big, angry speeches come off as not much more than a lot of yelling. It doesn’t help that, saddled with a shallow stage, director Nick Bowling has Cromer doing almost all his acting in profile. We hardly ever get to see both his eyes at once.

Still, Cromer’s surrounded by an ace ensemble—not to mention a brilliant set by Brian Sidney Bembridge, with projections by Michael Stanfill that keep us rooted in the historical moment. Mary Beth Fisher‘s Brookner manifests all the fierceness that Cromer fails to discover in Ned. Mark Grapey makes Ned’s lawyer brother, Ben, a story unto himself, fairly vibrating with repressed conflicts that Ned is too narcissistic to pick up on. Alex Weisman imparts a nurturing sweetness to Ned’s colleague Tommy. And Patrick Andrews is vivid in his suffering as Ned’s HIV-positive lover, Felix—though it’s hard to figure out what he sees in his beau. I recommend the show for their sake and, yes, because it’s important.