Guess what kids, AIDS is still a problem!
OR why you really need to get a ticket to see The Normal Heart
I will start this by saying that it is completely unnecessary to compare Tony Kushner’s Angels in America with Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart. But because both are being performed right now in New York, and I’ve seen them nearly back to back, it’s impossible not to compare.
Angels in America, while a triumph of stylistic writing in epic form within the constructs of six hours of stage traffic, exists in a hermetically sealed past, inexplicably inapplicable to today. I was struck by this fact (even before seeing Normal Heart) as I expected to be completely bowled over by finally seeing the entire thing performed live on stage. This was especially the case after the abundance of love showered on the revival in the papers.
Needless to say, I was disappointed. The show was clunky, without a natural rhythm or flow, which is a shame when working with the beautiful words of Kushner that, when they find that rhythm, can make for an incomparable night of theater. Was it the actors’ faults? No, all good in their roles, some better than others (I have yet to understand the desire to cast Zoe Kazan who has two modes, vacant and moody vacant). Was it the set? That definitely didn’t help. It was a cluttered mess on stage in which video projections were often cast over the entirety of the set, so you’d see these fragments of recognizable things both three and two dimensional. It was actually nauseating in the end.
So is it possible that it really is the play itself? Indeed it is. It just didn’t move me. Aspects still get me, watching a man struggle to admit that he’s gay, watching another man run away from the inevitable death of his lover. But all of this is rendered with a fourth wall very much in the way of me actually feeling anything for these characters, and most of the time, that fourth wall is in dating the show, so much of a moment that has passed.
Which brings us to The Normal Heart, which transfixed me for the two and a half hours with minimal staging, an extremely strong cast, but more than anything a play very much about the beginning of the AIDS epidemic that still managed to speak directly to me and to a sad reality facing my generation. In a world of AZT, the cocktail and a multitude of ways to keep the devastating affects of HIV and AIDS at bay, this play amazingly cut through all of it, getting on an extremely well constructed soapbox to plead with the modern man to be aware that the epidemic still exists.
Through the incredible weaving together of statistics and horrifying anecdotes, the panic of an unknown disease killing off a community is rendered in armrest gripping speeches and devastating moments in the life of Ned Weekes. There are so many constructs used in this show that could in turn be used against it (multiple endings within scenes, unrealistic polemics that don’t do a thing for plot), but they all serve the greater good of shaking you to your core while definitely inducing tears.
But more than anything, unlike Angels, here is a play that was speaking to me, grappling with a world that I still very much live in, as sad and crazy as that may seem. The protagonist is constantly trying to understand what the gay community truly is, and attempting to define it against the simple stock suggestion of people that have sex and lots of it, eschewing this notion of free love that, in his mind, defined a generation. Most nights I find myself NOT at a club or bar looking for the next trick and think, do I really belong to the gay community? Much of what has defined the community that I exist in doesn’t entirely gel with who I am, which is completely fine. But to see that rendered as a debate on stage is thrilling, especially when it is the very fact of what defines my community that likely kept AIDS from being a hot button topic until four years had elapsed and too many had died for it to be ignored.
Like I said at the top, there’s no reason to truly compare these pieces, they have different goals at the end of the day. However, I can absolutely tell you that I would gladly plop down another Broadway ticket price to see Normal Heart whereas I will be saying no thank you to another six hours of beautiful writing that seems to push the issue into the recent past as opposed to create a thrilling and heartbreaking search for answers that very much continues today.