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culture

Studio 180 Explores the Early Days of AIDS

Larry Kramer wrote The Normal Heart in 1985, but the powerful play, chronicling the earliest days of AIDS in New York City, still strikes a chord today.

Ryan Kelly, Paul Essiembre, Jonathan Wilson, and Jonathan Seinen (left to right). Photo by John Karastamatis.

The Normal Heart
Buddies in Bad Times Theatre (12 Alexander Street)
October 14 to November 6
Tuesday to Saturday at 8 p.m.
Saturday and Sunday at 2:30 p.m.
$35 (PWYC Sundays)

There was a moment during a climactic scene between Jonathan Wilson and Jeff Miller at the opening performance of the Studio 180 production of The Normal Heart currently playing at Buddies when we heard some faint white noise behind the actors’ voices: the tell-tale sniffling of a roomful of people trying to not cry. There’s a great feeling of union among an audience who share the need to weep combined with the knowledge that any excess noise could ruin something they don’t want ruined. All this to say, The Normal Heart is one sad fucking play. But it’s also a wonderful one, and you should definitely see it.

For those not up on their AIDS activism/queer art history, Larry Kramer is a pretty important figure in both fields. He wrote the Academy Award–nominated screenplay for controversial Ken Russell movie Women in Love as well as the classic gay novel Faggots. He also founded the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, the first-ever AIDS service organization, and when that group ousted him for his controversial views, he founded ACT UP, probably the most well-known AIDS advocacy group in existence, with chapters all over the world. And he wrote the plays The Normal Heart and its sequel, The Destiny of Me. There’s been a definite resurgence of interest in the 1985 off-Broadway hit recently. A Broadway production starring Jim Parsons, Ellen Barkin, and Lee Pace just completed a Tony-winning limited run earlier this year. And Glee mastermind Ryan Murphy claims to be preparing for a film version starring Mark Ruffalo and Julia Roberts.

In The Normal Heart, Kramer dramatizes his experiences with GMHC, using the protagonist Ned Weeks as a proxy for himself. Usually, we’re supposed to avoid looking for autobiography in fiction, but in this case Kramer wants us to. In his program notes from the Broadway revival (reprinted in the Studio 180 production’s program), he urges us to “please know that everything in The Normal Heart happened.” He goes on to outline the names and histories of the real-life counterparts of all the characters in the play, several of whom are, sadly, no longer with us. With this in mind, it’s tempting to view The Normal Heart as a historical document; a record of the bad old days when politicians were criminally negligent about the AIDS crisis, gay men were dropping like flies, and no one even knew what HIV was or how you got it. And, sure, it’s a fascinating chronicle of that moment in history, as well as a compelling call-to-arms against institutional homophobia and gay apathy. But in a way, that’s all gravy. Exciting politics are fine, but they don’t make an audience of hundreds of people cry unless they’re grounded in compelling characters, story, and relationships—all of which The Normal Heart has in spades.

Jonathan Wilson plays Ned Weeks, a writer and reluctant activist who founds a never-named AIDS service organization with the help of Mickey Marcus (Ryan Kelly), Tommy Boatwright (Jonathan Seinen), and the handsome Bruce Niles (Paul Essiembre), who beats out Ned to become president because of his broader appeal, despite his being semi-closeted. Ned is a real gem of a protagonist. He’s kind of an asshole, but he’s also really likeable. He’s extreme, but he’s also convincing. And watching his relationships with the other characters develop over the course of the evening is a real joy. He’s got a complicated relationship with his brother Ben (John Bourgeois), who loves him fiercely but doesn’t understand homosexuality as something more than another of his brother’s neurotic tics. Their scenes together are electric, but so are his scenes with Emma Brookner (Sarah Orenstein), his doctor and the only person telling him that he actually needs to make more of a stink about AIDS, not less. As are those with Felix Turner (Jeff Miller), the closeted New York Times fashion writer he falls in love with, and loses, and Essiembre’s Bruce, whose style of advocacy through politeness and respectability is anathema to Ned while still understandable to the audience.

It’s a fantastic cast, and Wilson does a great job anchoring the evening (he’s onstage nearly the entire time). Orenstein has practically made a career out of playing hard-edged women who tell it like it is, and if you’re going to listen to someone yell at you about something, she’s one of the best yellers our country’s got. Ryan Kelly also deserves a shout-out for his last Mickey scene, where he breaks down after realizing that the sexual liberation he and the gay rights movement have espoused for years has contributed to creating a promiscuous environment where AIDS was able to spread in the horrific way that it did.

Studio 180 artistic director Joel Greenberg directs the play, and while he draws great performances from his cast, some of his choices feel a bit arbitrary. Why the dance music during scene changes? Why stage the show in-the-round? Why the all-white chessboard stage? But it’s basically a straightforward production of the play, and it works. Greenberg also directed Studio 180′s acclaimed production of The Laramie Project. The reason The Laramie Project is one of the most frequently produced plays of the last decade is that as well as having a vitally important political, gay-rights message, it also works as storytelling: the unjust murder of a good man and the community it tore apart. The Normal Heart is another example of a brilliant marriage between great theatre and great politics.

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