Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart is an important play, but not a very good one.
I should preface this post by acknowledging that reviewing a play solely on the basis of its text is somewhat of a faux pas, given that plays are meant to be performed. I have yet to watching a stage production of the play, but watching the HBO film version did nothing but confirm my initial feelings about the play.
For the uninitiated, The Normal Heart is a play set in the early 1980s about Ned Weeks, a gay writer and activist who is trying to raise awareness about an unknown disease (read: AIDS) killing gay men in New York City. The play is somewhat autobiographical and there are significant parallels between Larry Kramer’s real experiences as an organizer and Ned’s. Ultimately, Ned’s approach is far too aggressive and sex negative for his peers, many of whom are concerned with his tactics and messaging. Meanwhile, Ned falls in love with Felix Turner, who is also suffering from this “mysterious illness.”
My two biggest gripes with this play are the writing and the ending.
Within the first few pages, I wanted to yell at Kramer, whose style can be summarized as journalistic and dense with monologue. There isn’t conversation, just various characters (primarily Ned) ranting at length. It feels unnatural and forced, because news flash: no one talks like that in real life. I’m not arguing that a play must be realistic in order to be successful. That said, in a play that attempts to portray the horrors of trying to organize during the AIDs epidemic, Kramer’s style simply does not fit the tone of the story.
If I recall correctly, Kramer wrote The Normal Heart shortly after being forced out of a similar organization, much like his fictional counterpart, so his frustration with and anger at himself, at the gay community, doctors, the government, straight people, etc. is all palpable. Kramer’s intent may have been to be this direct and preachy, but it’s exhausting trying to read (and watch). What’s worse is his didactic tone comes at the expense of developing characters with depth and nuance.
The one time I think his style succeeds (or could succeed on stage) is when Dr. Emma Brookner is speaking to doctors off-stage, asking for the government to fund research into the virus. The request is rejected, and Dr. Brookner unleashes in a tirade, while staring at and speaking directly to the audience. This could have been extremely powerful, had this been the only time it felt like the characters were lecturing the audience. It would’ve been unpredicted and a major tonal shift, making the audience intensely uncomfortable, which I consider Kramer’s goal. But by then, I was bored and accustomed to these long stretches of speech, and the overall effect was weakened.
The play’s final scene during which Ned and Felix wed shortly before Felix’s death is also disappointing. This moment lacks the emotion one would expect from such a dramatic ending and feels all too contrived. The ending doesn’t bother me as much as the writing, and it serves as a gentle reminder that the HIV/AIDS crisis is as much about the systematic failure of countless institutions and public officials as it is about the real human lives it took and affected.
In the end, The Normal Heart’s redeeming quality is knowing that the story is heavily influenced by true events, in particular Kramer’s life. I really wish I could’ve liked this play more, and I recognize how fiercely Kramer tries to rouse the audience into taking action — the theatre is meant to be filled with statistics about HIV/AIDS and each audience member is sent home with a letter outlining the continued failure to properly address this cureless plague. Unfortunately, this alone is not enough to make a flat, poorly written play engaging.