Heart Attack

Of artistic choices and angry voices

If Larry Kramer's The Normal Heart isn't often revived, it's almost certainly because it's an issue-related drama with a story -- about the first few years of the AIDS epidemic in Manhattan -- that sounds, in quick summary, quite dated. It doesn't help that the play is equal parts lecture and diatribe, or that Kramer's otherwise stylish, forceful script contains too many shrieking matches and is swollen with statistics that aren't dramatized but rather simply repeated throughout the play's two acts. Even a brilliantly directed and perfectly acted production of this show -- which Stray Cat Theatre's current revival certainly is not -- is difficult to sit through.

This is not to say that The Normal Heart shouldn't be seen. Once considered timely, Kramer's play has proven itself timeless. This compassionate drama about a medical catastrophe attacking gay men plays today like a kind of modern tragedy rather than an '80s time capsule, because the fear and ambiguity of AIDS hasn't dissipated in the 20 years since the play first opened. And because the story at the core of all of Kramer's hollering isn't about AIDS so much as it is about the search for identity, an enduring theme at any time, in any context.

But it's all that hollering that ultimately sinks Stray Cat's production. Rather than search for different and unusual ways to present Kramer's endless string of bitter tirades, director Ron May merely has his cast shout each and every one of them at full volume. In real life, the wounded may writhe and holler, but in the theater we want more emotional texture. Instead, May gives us nonstop, full-throttle fury; by my count, nearly every one of the play's 16 scenes ends with outraged shrieking. That's more than two hours of shrieking.

Joey Moore (as Larry Kramer masquerading as Ned Weeks) in a rare moment of repose in The Normal Heart.
Joey Moore (as Larry Kramer masquerading as Ned Weeks) in a rare moment of repose in The Normal Heart.

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Poor Joey Moore, in the lead role of Ned Weeks (based on Kramer himself), must be hoarse by now. Moore spends the entire play with his face screwed tightly into a grimace, either screaming at the top of the lungs or about to. (Anyone who questions whether a real-life person can actually be that angry all the time has never had the dubious honor of meeting or speaking with Larry Kramer. During the first of a handful of telephone interviews I've conducted with Mr. Kramer over the years, he spent a full five minutes bitching about my use of the verb "impacted" in my first question. I eventually hung up on him.) There are subtler ways to portray a blowhard like Ned Weeks than to turn him into a screamer, even when he's based on a real-life screamer like Kramer. May simply turns up the volume and cranks out the bile.

In a smaller, less showy role, Benjamin Siemon proves a more compelling performer. Although his meltdown well into Act Two winds up as another shriek fest, Siemon's monologue about how he loves sex and would rather die than give up the sexual freedom he's spent his life fighting for builds from a whisper of emotion into a tremendous roar of pain and passion. It's the single most exciting bit of acting I've seen in an already impressive season of theater.

Scott Campbell and Polly Chapman also turn in worthy performances, he as Ned's lover in gradual decline, she in one of the script's more sketchily drawn roles as a doctor on the forefront of the epidemic. But even these characters end most of their scenes in a lather. In his Director's Notes, which are more entertaining than several parts of this production, May tells us he's "not much of a screamer in real life. Tonight . . . is as close as I can get right now." Yet with the performers he's gathered here and a more subtle approach to the material, we might well have heard him more clearly without all the yelling.

 
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