Jonathan Wilson and Sarah Orenstein add lots of Heart.
THE NORMAL HEART by Larry Kramer (Studio 180 at Buddies in Bad Times, 12 Alexander). To November 6. See listing. Rating: NNNNN
Larry Kramer's blistering account of the early years of the AIDS crisis in New York City continues to anger, shock and move even three decades after its premiere. If it has less urgency than it did in 1985, that only makes us appreciate Kramer's skill in interweaving polemic with human drama. And let's not be smug; there's still no cure for AIDS, and generations of people continue to believe it doesn't concern them and so engage in risky behaviour.
The autobiographical play recounts the efforts of a group of gay men to start an organization to control the rapid spread of what was then considered "gay cancer." Kramer stand-in Ned Weeks (Jonathan Wilson), a writer, forms a group in his own apartment, but his confrontational style and pronouncements about gay men's sexual practices in the face of the unknown soon clash with the organization's closeted president, Bruce (Paul Essiembre) and the others who have worked hard for the right to fuck whom, and how, they want.
Meanwhile, they're facing roadblocks from the New York Times and the mayor's office, mostly over fears of being outed. Ned's only allies seem to be pugnacious doctor Emma Brookner (Sarah Orenstein) and his lover, Felix (Jeff Miller).
It's a messy and at times manipulative play, filled with speeches, diatribes and self-aggrandizement - I could have done without the Gay History 101 lesson near the end. But like its passionate writer and protagonist, it demands to be heard. And the thing works on an emotional level, exploring family, friendship and loss with piercing honesty.
Joel Greenberg directs the show effectively in the round in John Thompson's spare set, which, with its floor of white squares, occasionally emphasizes the characters' chess-like standoffs. Verne Good's transition music nicely evokes the late disco era.
The cast is superb. Essiembre, Miller, Orenstein and Ryan Kelly each nail difficult monologues, but it's Wilson's Ned who anchors the work with his passion and humanity. Don't miss this show.