Great Reviews, Great Production, So Why (Oh, Why) Did It Close?

It is always sad when a show closes, and unbearably so when the closure is stunningly unexpected. When the acclaimed revival of Larry Kramer’s 1985 The Normal Heart closed after nine weeks at the Public on June 29, the shock was palpable. For here was a memorable production that was being considered for a Broadway transfer only two weeks before its sudden closure. What happened?

In the end, all shows close for the same reason: The audience just isn’t there. But The Normal Heart, Mr. Kramer’s immensely moving, groundbreaking AIDS drama that was written in blood and outrage, had every reason to believe it would find an audience when the reviews came in. “How can a show with reviews as good as this tank?” its disenchanted dramatist asked me rhetorically.

It’s sobering to report that the critics who enthusiastically supported The Normal Heart-myself among them-had little or no influence. A spot check of all the critics of the play (newspapers, magazines, dot-com and radio) reveals this: Out of 42 reviews, seven were negative, 21 were positive and 14 were raves.

Among the thumbs-up were influential outlets as varied as The New York Times (a “gale force,” “benchmark drama”-Ben Brantley) and Variety (“a defining work of theater,” “blisters with conviction and heart”-Charles Isherwood). John Simon of New York magazine-renowned for not being too easily pleased-concluded his rave review: “In the end you will hear fellow theatergoers weeping all around you, the sound muffled only by that of your own cathartic sobbing.”

Mr. Simon was honestly reporting what everyone who saw The Normal Heart felt. The production, led by the excellent Raul Esparza playing Mr. Kramer’s alter ego, Ned Weeks, created an unusually profound connection with its audience, just as the wounded, heartfelt play did almost 20 years ago.

So as well as all the favorable reviews, The Normal Heart encouraged positive word of mouth-essential to building an audience-and according to its executive producer, Carol Fineman, the word couldn’t have been better.

We can add another major positive: its core audience. A show with a ready-made core of support stands more than a fighting chance. Golda’s Balcony, the play about Golda Meir, for obvious example, has its built-in Jewish audience. The Normal Heart is a play about gays in a callous America. “It breaks my heart to say it, but where were they?” Mr. Kramer, the uncompromising gay activist, asked when we spoke. “Where were our own? Some went, but they didn’t support us, no.”

He takes it controversially much further. “They don’t support anything. Why did so few of us speak out about AIDS in the 1980’s? To this day, I don’t understand it. We’re a community mostly in denial. I think we’re more invisible than ever.”

Really? With gay marriage on the horizon? “You don’t have to do anything to support gay rights.” he replied. “You can just sign a petition. Why didn’t the gays go to Normal Heart? I’ll tell you: They’re going to see Hugh Jackman instead.”

Perhaps-but it could be that today’s younger gay generation want to be free of the weight of tragic history in the way that a post-Holocaust generation of Jews no longer wants to be defined by its unbearable past.

Where were the straights at The Normal Heart? (They’re going to see Hugh Jackman!) But the revival had good reason to anticipate crossover support. After all, a play has no gender (and a great play is a great play). When The Normal Heart opened at the Joseph Papp Public Theater in 1985, it ran for 10 months and attracted a crossover audience for what became the longest-running production in the Public’s history.

Papp loved the play so much he kept it running in spite of falling attendance. Each time it came to the crunch, he just couldn’t face shutting it down.

Now consider this hard, unforgiving reality: The current production played in the Public’s Anspacher, an intimate space with only 275 seats. But no performance ever sold out. In fact, box-office sales-including discounted tickets-were never higher than 58 percent, and in the final two weeks they were disastrously lower.

In today’s economic climate, there was little or no choice but to close the show. This is a rare case in theater when nobody blames the producers, however. One of them, Hal Luftig, lost a reported $100,000. The show was produced by the enterprising, nonprofit Worth Street Theater Company and budgeted at about $300,000-quite low even for Off Broadway, where the costs of a production can run to at least twice as much.

Why did the nonprofit Worth Street Theater Company need outside financial help from investors? The usual budget for its modest productions is low. But The Normal Heart has 16 scene changes and nine actors, making it a big show for Off Broadway. Without outside help or private philanthropy, it couldn’t have been staged at this high level. As it was, the Public gave the production a generous break on its normal rental costs.

Mr. Luftig, battling to keep the production afloat, would raise another $200,000 from supporters of the play like Scott Rudin and Daryl Roth (both quixotic producers of Caroline, or Change on Broadway). The money was used for e-mail blasts, advertising, new artwork, direct mail and a new marketing and promotion man. But the results of all that take time.

Then in a decisive blow, Joanna Gleason, who played the key role of the doctor, left the show. Serious momentum was lost when the production took a two-week hiatus at the beginning of June to rehearse the replacement actress Lisa Kron. But it was thought the show still stood a chance as Mr. Kramer publicized it in countless appearances during Gay Pride Week. He acknowledges his a miscalculation. “The gays were out having a great party!” he points out. “A serious political play was the last thing on their agenda.”

There were no advance ticket sales to buy more time. The P.R. blast hadn’t taken; $70,000 had been lost in the last two weeks. The Normal Heart closed on the Tuesday following Gay Pride Week.

“I’ve no intention of writing a play again,” Mr. Kramer says. “What’s the point? Who’s going to come and see it? Unless you write Avenue Q.”

It’s hard not to conclude that serious drama in American theater is in obvious peril; the chances of good work finding a committed audience becoming harder and harder. Remember, in spite of its five Tony Awards and glowing reviews, Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins closed early, too-even though Mr. Sondheim has his own core audience of Sondheimeans.

But then, Mr. Sondheim has never had a commercially successful run on Broadway. And for all the worrying conclusions we might draw from the experience of Mr. Kramer’s The Normal Heart, one major reason it didn’t have a long run is heartbreaking to state.

Any revival of a modern American classic relies on those who saw it the first time round coming back to see it again. We return for many nostalgic reasons: to recapture the experience, to relive a time and place in a kind of homecoming. But the young and frightened generation that first went to The Normal Heart 20 years ago can’t do that. So many of our gay friends have since died, and our loved ones can’t go home again.

Let be. When all is said and done, I take heart that the story of The Normal Heart was told at the Public again, that good people supported it and that everyone who saw it was glad. It may not amount to much in this cockamamie world, but it’s something.

It’s everything.