In 1985, Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart challenged America—no, humanity—to save the lives of “his friends”—gay men dying of a nameless disease. In 2011, at least 25 million people, many strangers to Kramer, have died. Now, in the play’s Broadway debut, Kramer’s alter ego, activist Ned Weeks (Joe Mantello), seems like a tragic Cassandra as he lambastes institutions like the New York Times and the U.S government for their inaction. “We’re not yelling loud enough!” he cries.
We know Kramer wasn’t wrong about AIDS, but also that yelling can’t be one’s only strategy, in art or politics. Kramer wasn’t prioritizing art then, and still isn’t—he stood outside the preview distributing leaflets declaring that “everything in The Normal Heart happened.” But the passing years have made it easier to admire his confrontational style, brush off the play’s contempt for sexual pleasure, and credit Kramer with the invention of, among others, Tony Kushner.
The quasi-operatic monologues of the second act feel less manipulative than they must have in 1985, and truly tragic given the consequences of all that inaction. These roles are intensely attacked by the excellent cast, especially Mantello and Ellen Barkin, who plays Dr. Emma Brookner, an early AIDS doctor, whose spectacular meltdown captures the frustration and terror of those times.