October 18, 2018

Love and anger in the time of AIDS

In 1981, Larry Kramer, the author and gay-rights provocateur, became alarmed as he witnessed large numbers of gay men become horribly ill and die in droves of a mysterious illness. The New Yorker was enraged that the government and the media seemed to be ignoring what had been dubbed the “gay plague” — and that many gay men appeared to be in denial — so he co-founded the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC) to tackle the disease that would become known as AIDS.

Kramer’s in-your-face tactics eventually clashed with his less-militant GMHC colleagues’ approach, and after Kramer published a seething call to arms in the New York Native, in 1983, the organization promptly ousted him. (He went on to help create the famously aggressive ACT UP in 1987.)

Kramer, now 78, was devastated at the ousting, and set off on an extended trip to Europe to lick his wounds. While in Germany, the Jewish writer chanced to visit the concentration camp of Dachau. There, he was stunned to learn that the camp had opened in 1933, five years before the onset of the Holocaust, and that even in later years the American government, as well as American Jewry, declined to aggressively confront Hitler.

The parallels he saw between that inaction and the response to the AIDS crisis spurred him to write his landmark play “The Normal Heart” (1984), which spotlights an author much like Kramer, whose ham-fisted tactics alienate him from his fellow activists, even as his own lover, Felix, becomes ill as a result of the virus.

“The Normal Heart” opened with fanfare in 1985 at Manhattan’s Public Theatre and went on to be performed in numerous productions around the world, notably a 2011 Broadway revival directed by Joel Grey and starring Joe Mantello. An HBO film version is now in production, starring Mark Ruffalo. And for the first time in 15 years, a separate revival has come to Los Angeles, running through Dec. 15. It is directed by Simon Levy and stars Tim Cummings, and it has drawn critical acclaim at The Fountain Theatre.

In the production, Ned Weeks (Cummings), Kramer’s alter-ego, is explosive as he compares the AIDS disaster to the Nazi persecution of European Jewry: “Do you know that when Hitler’s Final Solution … was first mentioned in the [New York] Times it was on page 28,” Cummings thundered during one recent performance, throughout which the audience gasped and sobbed. “And on page six of the Washington Post. And the Times and the Post were owned by Jews. What causes silence like that?! … Everything was downplayed and stifled.”

When Felix counters that anti-Semitism was rampant during the 1940s, Cummings posits that “everybody has a million excuses for not getting involved. But aren’t there moral obligations?”

“Ned Weeks is a quintessential Jewish hero,” Levy, 64, said during an interview along with Cummings recently at the Fountain. “It’s his knowledge of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust that gives him his awareness of the possibility of extinction, and that drives his politics.”

Levy, who said he makes a point of directing socially relevant plays, can relate to Kramer’s experience. He grew up in a liberal Jewish home in a gay enclave of San Francisco. When the AIDS epidemic began in the early 1980s, “It was really up close and personal,” he said. At the time, Levy was directing a musical revue, “Beach Blanket Babylon,” and before long five members of his cast had died of AIDS — as well as 10 more of his friends and colleagues. 

“It got to the point where it was hard to go to the hospital again, or to people’s homes who were ill,” he said.

When Levy saw the first San Francisco production of “The Normal Heart,” in 1985, he appreciated the play as “agitprop — as a call to arms.”

But when he saw the play again last year at the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., what struck him most was the romance between Ned and Felix. Levy had been reading dozens of plays over the past year, searching for a piece that wedded social action with a love story, and, “Within 10 minutes, I knew I had found what I was looking for,” he said.

After wrangling for seven months to secure the rights to the play, Levy’s biggest challenge was to present it in a way that would not come off as a screed. “I decided that while the format of the play would be agitprop, internally it would be about relationships,” he explained. “In every scene we would focus on the interior life and dynamics between the characters.”

For example, the sequence in which Ned draws parallels between the Holocaust and AIDS is as much about Ned’s fear of intimacy with Felix as it is about politics.

Even so, Levy said, he instructed his actors to perform “right on the razor’s edge, even with the danger of the foray into melodrama. It’s a very fine line, but when it works, it’s thrilling.”

One of Levy’s best assets is Cummings, 40, a bearded, intense actor who said he brings his own personal passion and outrage to the character. Growing up in Brooklyn, the gay son of an Irish-Catholic New York City fire chief, he said he and his best friend, who was Jewish, were mercilessly bullied by local jocks.

And Cummings still remembers the acute fear of AIDS he felt as a gay student at New York University in the early 1990s: “We didn’t have a sexual revolution; we had a sexual repression,” he said. “It took me a really long time to feel OK about being sexual.”

He regards the fictional Ned as the most difficult role he has ever tackled. “My character is based on Larry Kramer, who was famously unlikable and in some ways repugnant,” he explained. “But I didn’t have any interest in playing the George Clooney version of Ned Weeks. The point of the play is, it’s got to be in your face. There’s an entire generation of men who died of AIDS, and their friends and families are still holding onto that pain. I want to channel that.”

Cummings also based his portrayal on observations he made watching interviews with the famed activist, who was recuperating from surgery as the Journal went to press and was unavailable for

 an interview.

“In some of the interviews, you see Larry Kramer very calm, logical and smart — and then there were other times when he screams maniacally, terrifyingly,” Cummings said.

“But then again, he was very aware of his own flaws; in the play, he repeatedly states that he’s afraid of his anger, and he even says he knows he’s “an ass—-.” So I want my performance to be mercurial, ever-changing, and definitely in no way anything that is safe.”

With emotion, Cummings noted that audience members have found him on Facebook to write about people they’ve loved and lost. “I print them all out, and I save them,” he said. “They are such a gift.”

For tickets and information, call (323) 663-1525 or visit fountaintheatre.com.