Theater Review: ‘A Normal Heart’ Is Hearbreaking; ‘Baby, It’s You’—Not Me

The thing is, Larry Kramer–the writer, AIDS activist, playwright and self-promoter–was right. About everything.

Or, at least, Ned Weeks–Mr. Kramer’s alter-ego Cassandra character in The Normal Heart, his furious polemical play about the early years of the AIDS crisis, now playing in a spectacular and spectacularly moving revival at the Golden Theatre–is right.

Ned, alone among his friends, is quick to recognize that the new and not yet understood illness among Manhattan’s gay population is an existential threat; he realizes that reckless and unprotected sex is spreading it; he knows that politicians and public-health officials won’t take this plague seriously so long as the men dying of it remain marginalized. He helps found an organization to educate people about the disease and its prevention–the name Gay Men’s Health Crisis doesn’t appear in the play, but that’s what it is–and he’s eventually thrown out of it, for being too difficult, as Mr. Kramer was from GMHC. As portrayed in the play, he’s thrown out mostly for being right.

That Ned (which is to say, Mr. Kramer) is so right and yet so often ignored is what makes this Normal Heart revival, wonderfully directed by Joel Grey, who played Ned in the play’s original production, and George C. Wolfe and featuring an excellent ensemble led by a superb Joe Mantello as Ned, so searingly urgent, even all these years later. It’s also what makes it mildly irritating.

The Normal Heart was first produced at the Public Theater at the remarkably early date of April 1985–the year before the virus that causes AIDS was given the name H.I.V.; two years before AZT, the first AIDS drug, was introduced. What plays now as history–recent, outraged history–was intended 26 years ago as an angry wake-up call, a warning about this new plague, about the unwillingness or inability of those same men to change the behaviors enabling its spread, and about the callous indifference shown by powerful institutions–specifically, a closeted mayor, a right-wing White House and a genteelly homophobic New York Times.

Twenty-six years later, after Mr. Kramer has been proven right–after, indeed, gay culture has left behind the bathhouses and clamors instead for the wedding halls, just as Mr. Kramer wanted–it can be a bit grating to have him browbeat you with his correctness for more than two hours.

It’s also easy, now, to see the flaws in his self-mythologizing script. Ned is the only character drawn in three dimensions. (Poor Ellen Barkin, as the crusading and polio-stricken Dr. Emma Brookner, struggles valiantly against the limitations of both a wheelchair and a character written only as a stymied saint.) Those who disagree with Ned–people who didn’t yet know he would be proved right, who didn’t even know exactly what the disease was or how it was transmitted, who didn’t want to out themselves and destroy their careers–are portrayed as either blinkered or callow. The most affecting passages are not dramatic developments but declaimed soliloquies.

And yet: Those soliloquies, based on real events from those horrible early years–especially Brookner’s wrenching testimony before a National Institutes of Health board that won’t fund her research, and Ned’s friend and rival Bruce’s anguished story of his partner’s awful, messy death and the hospital staff that wouldn’t touch his body–are wrenching and heartbreaking. And Mr. Kramer’s prescience is impressive: The play ends with the improvised, hospital-room wedding of Ned and his dying boyfriend, Felix, officiated by Brookner. “I can see no objection,” she says. “This is my hospital, my church.”

In truth, to complain that The Normal Heart lacks subtlety and graciousness is to miss the point. Mr. Kramer doesn’t do subtlety or graciousness, and, as his play convincingly argues, in 1985 subtlety and graciousness allowed too many people to die. This simple and stark staging allows his stinging anger to come through, creating a profound piece of political theater.

When it’s over, and you’ve wiped away the tears, you’ll leave The Normal Heart to find Mr. Kramer on the sidewalk outside, handing out leaflets that harangue you to do more. He’s still not subtle, and he’s still right.

Some further, much less important recent history: On April 11, 2010, Million Dollar Quartet opened on Broadway. A halfhearted attempt to build a play from a photograph–the famous of one of Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins in a Memphis record studio–it’s really an excuse to sing ’50s rock ‘n’ roll hits from a Broadway stage. More than a year later, it’s still playing.

Quartet was the first Broadway show from creator and co-writer Floyd Mutrux. Having subsequently come to New York, apparently, and observed who partakes of these vacuous exercises in boomer nostalgia, Mr. Mutrux is back with an even cleverer concept. Baby It’s You, which opened last week at the Broadhurst Theatre, is an excuse to put ’60s rock ‘n’ roll hits onstage, strung together by the story of–and this is the genius part–the Jewish housewife from New Jersey who discovered the Shirelles.

Oy, you say? Oy indeed. In fact, “oy” is the first line of dialogue in Baby It’s You, uttered by Florence Greenberg in her Passaic kitchen as she announces to her husband that she’d like to get a job, perhaps in the music business. “Oy,” he replies, before scolding his wife, dismissing the new pop music, and then (apparently despite his objections) delivering a hectoring verse of the Coasters classic “Yakety-Yak”: “Take out the papers and the trash/ Or you don’t get no spending cash.”

This the level of complexity in Baby It’s You, which features an unfortunate, abused Beth Leavel as Florence, and a group of generally hardworking, smooth-voiced and equally unfortunate singers as various Shirelles, Isleys, Greenberg family members, a Kingman and Dionne Warwick.

In Mr. Mutrux’s hands–this time, he’s listed as conceiver, co-writer (once again with Colin Escott) and co-director (with Sheldon Epps); his wife, Birgitte Mutrux is the choreographer–Greenberg’s trailblazing life story instead becomes a thin, occasionally nonsensical and painfully cheesy narrative on which to hang a greatest-hits selection of 1960s pop songs, most from Greenberg’s Scepter Records and some just there for the hell of it.

Baby It’s You has the energy, playlist, and affect of a late-night Time-Life Records infomercial, if not quite the narrative conference.

The final Broadway opening of the season, and the other bit of Jewsploitation last week, was Roundabout’s The People in the Picture, a dreadful new musical about the Holocaust, the Yiddish theater, aging, family and the risk inherent in entrusting your Jewish child to gentiles who are only grudgingly righteous.

It stars Donna Murphy, who bravely channels Tovah Feldshuh in this retread mashup of Feldshuh’s Irena’s Vow, MTC’s To Be Or Not To Be and every other Holocaust story you’ve ever seen, but with an added shtikl of terrible Borscht Belt humor. Its book and lyrics are by Beaches author Iris Rainer Dart and its music is by Artie Butler and the legendary Mike Stoller, who here visits upon his audience whatever injuries were done to him by Baby It’s You.

In honor of the recently completed holiday commemorating a different hard time in Jewish existence, I will confine my exasperation to only four questions:

How do you write a lyric like “A pogrom is not an easy act to follow”?

How do you write a song about the advantages of moving to a senior-citizen home?

How do you follow that song with the line “The Nazis called it resettlement”?

Who thought any of this was a good idea?



Theater Review: ‘A Normal Heart’ Is Hearbreaking; ‘Baby, It’s You’—Not Me