By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Again and again Ned Weeks implores his heterosexual brother Ben (Bob Hess), a wealthy attorney, to use his money and connections for the cause. Ben refuses and rejects Ned's requests to be treated as an equal rather than a head case (there's stuff early in the play about Ned being forced by Ben into psychiatric treatment to "cure" his homosexuality).
The love interest is handsome Felix (Mark Shum), who's conflicted about coming out and, even worse, works as a reporter at the Times. His and Ned's romance is an unlikely one, but Uptown's actors save what on the page is a pretty soppy soap-opera scenario. We know Felix will fall ill--how else will Ned Weeks justify his commitment to the campaign?--but when he does, it's a surprise how delicately it's handled by Uptown's Taylor and Shum. There is real passion in their final scenes together. But there is also the same sort of sweet, wrenching sadness of the "let go" scene in the film Longtime Companion.
The Normal Heart is a play loaded with dramatic landmines. Kramer makes Ned Weeks (his alter ego) into a bristling cipher who speaks long stretches of facts and figures. Every character is awarded a too-long soliloquy--or two. And scenes seem to come to multiple denouements. There are also a lot of spurious "facts" and conspiracy theories put forth, including the assertion that AIDS could have come from government experiments meant to eradicate gay men altogether.
Kramer hasn't moved away from radical ideas. In a speech in 2004, he told a standing room-only crowd at Manhattan's Cooper Union that gays still were ignorant about and indifferent to their own demise and that a country filled with homophobes was happy to see them self-destruct. "I do not see us, don't you see? They are killing us," said Kramer. "They are eradicating us from this earth. Little by little by little we are disappearing. I do not see us, and I am beginning to see us less and less."
How prescient that The Normal Heart ends with two gay men repeating marriage vows to each other just before one of them dies. The relevance of this play lies right there in a reminder that, in so many ways, it's still 1985.