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Larry Kramer's play, "The Normal Heart", seemed ripped from the headlines when it premiered in 1985. A thinly-veiled piece of autobiography deals with the early days of the AIDS crisis. At the time, it elicited both admiration and controversy.
As Jeff Lunden reports, a new revival has opened on Broadway to rave reviews and five Tony nominations.
JEFF LUNDEN: After the devastating conclusion of "The Normal Heart," audiences, who have spent the last two and a half hours confronted by a fictional version of Larry Kramer doggedly telling anybody and everybody that attention must be paid to a growing health problem, sometimes find themselves face to face with the real Larry Kramer.
Mr. LARRY KRAMER (Playwright): Letter from the author.
Unidentified Woman: Thank you.
Mr. KRAMER: Tell your friends to come and see it.
Unidentified Man: Yes, we will.
LUNDEN: Kramer stands outside the theater a couple of nights a week, distributing a letter to let people know that the AIDS crisis is not a thing of the past, says Tony-nominated actor John Benjamin Hickey.
Mr. JOHN BENJAMIN HICKEY (Actor): I love how Larry Kramer is so many things, but nostalgia is one thing he's not. Larry is about right now. I mean, yes, his play is about a period of time in the past not so distant past but, I just love that his rabble rousing is as alive, as important, as bad-ass today, as it was back then.
LUNDEN: And director George C. Wolfe also Tony nominated says "The Normal Heart" feels like anything but a period piece. The first line is: I know something's wrong. And Wolfe says he wanted to convey the urgency and terror of the killer that hadn't even been identified.
Mr. GEORGE C. WOLFE (Director, "The Normal Heart"): It's pre-AIDS. The A-I-D-S, it doesn't exist. It's a horror movie. And that's what I kept on telling the actors, it's a horror movie. You wake up one day and an invisible monster that you cannot see is killing people and you don't have any weapons to stop it.
LUNDEN: Actress Ellen Barkin, who's making her Broadway debut as Dr. Emma Brookner, says her character is based on one of the doctors who first started treating gay men who were mysteriously dying.
Ms. ELLEN BARKIN (Actress): Dr. Linda Laubenstein, who was a hematologist/oncologist at NYU and who, at the very beginning, I think around '79 or '80, said this is not right. And this is not going be good.
Ms. BARKIN: (as Dr. Emma Brookner) You have to tell gay men to stop having sex.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. JOE MANTELLO (Actor): (as Ned) I'm sorry, what?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. BARKIN: (as Dr. Brookner) Somebody has to, why not you?
Mr. MANTELLO: (as Ned) Well, wouldn't it be better coming from you? It's a preposterous request.
Ms. BARKIN: (as Dr. Brookner) It only sounds harsh. You wait a few more years, it won't sound so harsh.
Mr. MANTELLO: (as Ned) You realize you are talking about millions of men, who have singled out promiscuity to be their principal political agenda...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. MANTELLO: (as Ned) ...the one that they would die before abandoning? How do you deal with that?
Ms. BARKIN: (as Dr. Brookner) You tell them they may die.
Mr. MANTELLO: (as Ned) You tell them.
LUNDEN: But Larry Kramer did, as does his alter-ego, Ned, in the play, alienating a lot of people along the way.
"The Normal Heart" unflinchingly looks at how Kramer and several others in the community fought to get the mayor's office and the Reagan administration to take the growing plague among gay men seriously, as they dealt with friends and loved ones dying all around them. Kramer says he tried to be as objective as possible about himself as he wrote the play.
Mr. KRAMER: When I wrote down what I had actually done, that's what I had actually done. And I could see that I could annoy people and be this (beep). But that's who I am, so I wasn't going to romanticize myself.
Unidentified Woman: (as Brother) You made me sound like I'm the enemy.
Mr. MANTELLO: (as Ned) I'm beginning to think that you and your straight world are the enemy. I'm furious with you and with myself and with every god-damn doctor who ever told me I'm sick and interfered with my loving a man. I'm just, I'm trying to understand why nobody wants to hear that we're dying. Why nobody wants to help. Why my own brother doesn't want to help.
LUNDEN: Director George Wolfe says much of what makes the play effective is that Kramer has presented characters the audience falls in love with and then you see how AIDS affects all of them.
Mr. WOLFE: One of the brilliant, brilliant, brilliant, brilliant things that the play does is it makes AIDS intimate. It makes it so intimate for every single person sitting in the theater.
LUNDEN: And Kramer even foreshadows an issue that's part of our current national conversation. At the end of "The Normal Heart," there's an unofficial wedding between Ned and his dying lover, Felix.
Mr. KRAMER: People say that that's me manipulating the emotions of the play, but that's what happened. And so that's in the play. And if they think it's too corny, tough (beep).
LUNDEN: "The Normal Heart" is playing in a limited run at the Golden Theatre on Broadway through July 10th.
For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.
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