The sun came out Monday in New York, a lovely crisp, cool day, but I spent most of it inside, thinking about AIDS.
I spent the evening at one of the final previews of the revival of Larry Kramer’s impassioned, angry, autobiographical The Normal Heart, written in 1985, when the syndrome was a death sentence. Little factual was known about its cause or containment, let alone a cure, and Kramer was founding a politically charged service organization called Gay Men’s Health Crisis, for which the playwright-to-be was its motivator and hot-headed own worst enemy.
All of this is recounted in The Normal Heart, and seeing it today is like going back in a time capsule to a very dark time in recent history, but a trip worth taking. People of all stripes continue to contract AIDS, yet the earlier urgency and concern about the epidemic has waned.
It is not a very well-written play, but a powerful production. Characters speechify to us instead of talking to each other, but there is no denying the force of these rants, particularly as performed by Joe Mantello (as the Kramer character), his New York Times Styles reporter lover (John Benjamin Hickey) and Pushing Daisies’ Lee Pace as the organization’s spineless president.
It is the sort of work one hopes finds an audience, but suspect it will be an uphill battle, given Broadway ticket prices and the public’s penchant for burrowing its head in the sand.
In any event, it was a rather celebrity-studded audience Monday evening with Joan Rivers, Bob Balaban, Christine Baranski and co-director Joel Grey (on his night off from Anything Goes) in attendance. And standing on the sidewalk after the play was a frail, old man quietly passing out printed letters adding a few bitter facts about AIDS to the evening.
It was Kramer, now 75, still angry, still trying to get the world to pay attention.
* * *
Anger is, of course, a perfectly appropriate response to AIDS, but for 25 years, the support group Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS has been raising money for the AIDS-related social service work of the Actors Fund. And the culmination of the group’s spring fund drive for a quarter century has been the Easter Bonnet Competition, a group congratulation by the theater community for its efforts in the form of a snarky, often emotional entertainment.
I have fortunately been in New York at the right time to catch this show for several years now, and it is often a high point of the week. No, it will never win Tony Awards since it only runs for two days, but an impressive amount of energy and creativity goes into the production.
Basically, cast members of current shows write, stage and perform skits and musical numbers, often making fun of their own shows or other shows, and the digs can be comically scathing. Leading targets this year included the hibernating, on-hiatus Spiderman (predicted to be the only show to ever win Best Musical and Best Revival in the same season), Kathleen Turner’s fast-shuttered play High (make up your own punch line) and the moribund, much-touted flop from last fall, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.
A sprightly opening number kidding the chipper characters of TV’s Glee was directed and choreographed by Shea Sullivan (who devised the knockout dances for the Maltz Jupiter Theatre’s recent Crazy for You), a rising talent.
I certainly got misty-eyed over a tribute to the late Doris Eaton Travis, the 106-year-old former Ziegfeld Follies girl who had appeared — and often tap-danced — at the Easter Bonnet for the past 12 years and died two weeks after last year’s event. And a retrospective of bonnets past by the cast of La Cage aux Folles was worth a throat-lump, as was Kerry Butler’s rendition of the event’s traditional finale, David Friedman’s Help Is on the Way.
In the 25 years of the Easter Bonnet Competition, Broadway Cares has raised over $40 million. Quite incredible.