Issue:  Vol. 47 / No. 46 / 16 November 2017
 

Kramer vs. Kramer

Theatre


John Fisher, left, plays an activist during the early days of the AIDS crisis, and Jeremy Cole is his lover in the Theatre Rhino production of Larry Kramer's "The Normal Heart." Photo: David Wilson
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ADVERTISMENT

How not to win friends and influence people: Tell the mayor's assistant that his boss is a closeted cocksucker who would rather let gay men die than risk a hint of incriminating association. And for good measure, tell the assistant that he's a secret member of the butt brigade as well. Larry Kramer was an AIDS activist before a mysterious new disease had a name, and his sharp elbows were an asset until they weren't. His 1985 play "The Normal Heart" was an angry call to arms, pitched to the moment, but the reasons it has endured go beyond his scorching accusations of a criminally slow response to an emerging health crisis.

The largely autobiographical play is also a portrait of a flawed leader, a self-destructive streak that Kramer recognized in himself while never doubting the righteousness of his cause. Beyond the play's polemics and the dramatic dimensions of the Ned Weeks character, a stand-in for Kramer, there are the depictions of the first fallen comrades who had been part of a joyous celebration of sexual freedom. Confusion, fear, anger, affection, heartbreak, and a central character with wisdom that his uncontrollable temper undermines: these ingredients make for enduring theatrical potency.

Much of this potency emerges in Theatre Rhino's production at the Gateway Theatre, where the cast isn't afraid to ride an emotional roller coaster that leaves them shedding copious tears as the play moves toward the final curtain. The play unfolds through a series of short scenes taking place between 1981-84, as the body count grows while Weeks and his colleagues chip away at the willful inattention from politicians and the mainstream media, as well as a dangerous complacency among gay men who viewed promiscuity as a principal political agenda.

Director John Fisher has miscast himself as Weeks, at odds both physically and in deportment with the cranky, craggy, and manifestly Jewish character. While Fisher can muster up the proper anger at key moments in the first act, it often dissipates into either a bland presence or one given to unconvincing comic mugging and pseudo-gay physical gestures. But the tables turn in the second act, as Ned's anger, grief, and sense of betrayal become wall-to-wall, and Fisher is able to lock into a persuasive intensity.

Many other performances are strong throughout, including Jeremy Cole as a New York Times style writer with a misplaced sense of invincibility, Benoit Monin as a charismatic but half-closeted leader of an organization that resembles Gay Men's Health Crisis, and Tim Garcia as a particularly fragile member of the group. The overblown southern belle act of another activist doesn't sit comfortably on Morgan Lange's young shoulders, but as that persona evolves, Lange's performance becomes increasingly stronger. Leticia Duarte bristles with intensity as a committed-to-the-cause doctor (though her wheelchair agility needs work), and Robert Zelenka makes a big impression in the relatively small role of Ned's straight-arrow brother.

Played out on a set (by Gilbert Johnson) of chalkboard panels scribbled with incriminating statistics, Fisher's production adds some mild stylistic maneuvers to a play that throws its punches in a straightforward manner. By the end of this rendering, those punches have largely found their target.

 

"The Normal Heart" will run through Nov. 25 at the Gateway Theatre. Tickets are $20-$40. Call (800) 838-3006 or go to therhino.org.

 






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