Broadway is Bittersweet for Litchfield’s Larry Kramer
Larry Kramer on the terrace of his New York apartment on April 8, 2011.
If you think Larry Kramer’s seminal 1985 AIDS play, The Normal Heart (which will open on Broadway on April 27), is strictly a period piece, think again. Yes, it is set 30 years ago, when a mysterious disease is killing gay men, and the panic tearing through the homosexual community is of little concern to politicians, the medical establishment or the mainstream media. Yes, a style reporter at The New York Times is adamantly and paradoxically in the closet even though he has fallen in love with a loud-mouth gay activist (Kramer’s theatrical alter-ego). Yes, the banker who is elected to lead an organization devoted to taking care of people with the disease is unabashedly homophobic (“My boss doesn’t know and he hates gays. He keeps telling me fag jokes and I keep laughing at them,” the banker says.) Yes, there was so little information about the disease that it was feared it could be transmitted by a simple kiss. (It can’t.)
Yes, the times have changed. But the HIV/AIDS epidemic remains tragically with us. While 12,000 had died of AIDS by the summer of 1985, the total number of deaths in the United States from AIDS is more than 576,000 (as of 2007), according to the Centers for Disease Control. Today in this country, more than 18,000 people still die of AIDS annually, and more than 56,000 people get newly infected every year.
“The play is not really a world ago,” says Kramer, a part-time Litchfield County resident, whose impassioned drama is timeless because it’s essentially about love and friendship during a time of crisis. “There are so many things still wrong. You don’t read about it anymore, but it is still a plague. I plan to hand out a fact sheet at every performance.” Kramer laments that homosexuals are second class citizens in the United States. “We still don’t have real marriages,” he says bitterly, referring to the federal Defense of Marriage Act.
Kramer, who is 75, has longed believed in monogamy. He was castigated for his 1978 novel, Faggots, a satire that warned of the emotional hazards of promiscuity in the carefree, pre-AIDS era. “I was a pariah and then I was a seer,” he says. When you witness Kramer and his longtime partner, David Webster, graciously welcoming a diverse crowd of some 200 to their annual Fourth of July cookout overlooking Lake Waramaug in Litchfield County, it’s hard to imagine that he was once the most controversial figure in the gay community. Educated at Yale and so unapologetically bourgeois that his “high tech” Greenwich Village apartment was featured in The New York Times Magazine in 1974 (the Litchfield house has been in Architectural Digest), Kramer was arguably the angriest man in America in the 1980s. He was a founder of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis and ACT-UP, the organization that staged noisy protests, sit-ins and die-ins, demanding that the government make preventing and finding a cure for HIV/AIDS a priority. “We showed how a small group of activists could make a huge difference,” he says. “All of the drugs now available were possible because of the efforts of ACT- UP.”
Now he is a lion in winter, working away on a massive book about the history of homosexuality in America. “So many of our presidents have been gay,” he says, relishing his role as provocateur. “Not only Lincoln, but Washington and Hamilton, too.” The living room of his apartment has become his office with two enormous Apple computers surrounded by stacks and walls of books. “I wish I could go up to our house in Connecticut to work on it, but I don’t like to be alone and David travels too much,” he says. “But we are hoping to spend the whole summer there.” He bought the Litchfield house in 1995, after spending summers in both the Hamptons and Fire Island. “Connecticut is much prettier, and we don’t have the social competitiveness,” he says. “It took a lot of courage to go to Fire Island. People don’t remember that. You had to go on show and be prepared to be looked at by a lot of people. And that took a sort of courage. That’s why everyone took so many drugs. It made it easier.”
In New York, he lives in the same rent-stabilzied apartment featured in the Times with a terrace overlooking Washington Square Park. He is kept busy getting ready for opening night of The Normal Heart, which begins previews on April 19. “All my doctors are coming and I want them to have good seats!” he says. (The original production ran Off Broadway for 294 performances at the Public Theatre.) The show had a one-night-only Broadway debut last fall at a star-studded benefit reading. “The producer Darryl Roth decided that it deserved a real run, but we had trouble finding an available theater,” he says. The two most crucial parts in the play—Kramer’s alter ego, Ned Weeks, and his lover, Felix Turner—are being played by the same actors from the fall reading: Joe Mantello and John Benjamin Hickey (who happens to have a weekend house near Kramer’s in Salisbury, CT.) Kramer is extremely pleased that Ellen Barkin will be playing the heroic wheelchair-bound Dr. Emma Brookner. “She’s one of the great under-appreciated actresses,” he says.
Still, the Broadway run (and the anxiety of a possible Tony nomination) is bittersweet, and he hopes that it will be an opportunity to introduce a younger generation to their patrimony. “They don’t seem to want to know that there is a gay history or about the generation that died,” he says sadly. “The thing about the play is that it brings back so many memories. As wrong as it sounds, it was great fun. It wrapped us in a wonderful blanket of togetherness. I made many good friends because of GMHC and ACT-UP. Of course, many of them are dead.” Amazingly, he worries about being reviewed. “Facing the critics all over again is hard on the insides,” he says. “It’s funny to have to go through all of this again at this age.”
The Normal Heart
The Golden Theatre
252 West 45th Street, New York, NY
April 19 - July 3