National Commentary

‘Big Bang Theory’ Comedian’s Big Lift

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I consider it remarkable, and maybe a sign of a positive shift, that a play written as a lonely, anguished political cry-out in the early days of the AIDS crisis in 1984 is now playing to sold-out houses on Broadway and sits poised on the eve of the June 12 Tony Awards ceremony with no less than five Tony nominations.

I consider it remarkable, and maybe a sign of a positive shift, that a play written as a lonely, anguished political cry-out in the early days of the AIDS crisis in 1984 is now playing to sold-out houses on Broadway and sits poised on the eve of the June 12 Tony Awards ceremony with no less than five Tony nominations.

Larry Kramer’s play, “The Normal Heart,” is being performed as a gritty, no holds barred window on the incredibly horrid first couple of years when symptoms of AIDS first began to appear among gay men in New York City and elsewhere. It was first reported publicly in June 1981, and rapidly raged like a wildfire through the gay community, imprinting certain, horrible death sentences on anyone who developed even the slightest symptoms.

The irony, in the face of today’s accolades associated with the play, was that when he wrote it, Kramer was persona non grata in his own community, virtually exiled, because of his strident and outraged insistence that more be done, that much more be done, on all levels, to address the erupting horror.

Kramer had been voted off the board of the organization he, himself, created in the summer of 1981 as an instant response to the first reports of the epidemic, the Gay Men’s Health Crisis.
On Labor Day weekend in 1981, Kramer and a handful of others set up a stand on the ferry boat landing at Fire Island, where 15,000 gay men that weekend passed by on their way to another weekend of revelry. Kramer made signs reading “Help Fight the Gay Cancer!,” which was the only name for it then.

Out of all the 15,000, many of whom hooted and shrieked in laughter at Kramer’s effort, only $124 was raised. Within the next few years, it can be presumed that the vast majority of those men had themselves died from the disease.

But while Kramer’s tireless efforts soon began to awaken the gay community, the lack of response on the part of any level of government was outrageous, especially as the death toll began to rise.
The play ends at the point Kramer wrote it, in seclusion after being forced out of his own organization because of his stridency. Later, Kramer would go on to found “ACT UP,” a civil disobedience response to the Reagan administration’s lack of attention to AIDS when the death toll had climbed into the 10s of thousands. His efforts eventually made a difference, as leading researcher Dr. Anthony Fauci acknowledged in an opinion piece in the Washington Post this last Sunday.

A long-time fan of this play, and of Kramer’s heroic efforts, I was astonished to see its revival, in a venue far more prominent than when was first performed (at the Public Theatre).
This came to pass when actor Joel Grey, who had the lead role when it was originally performed, helped to organize and direct a reading of it last year in Los Angeles as an AIDS benefit marking the 25th anniversary of its first staging in 1985.

It was such a success that a second reading was held as a benefit in New York last Fall, also remarkably successful. After that plans were made to revive it on Broadway.

Its Tony nominations are for Best Revival of a Play, Best Direction (Grey and George C. Wolfe) and for a number of actor/actresses (Joe Mantello, John Benjamin Hickey and Ellen Barkin).

But kudos special go to a popular young star of a successful TV sitcom series who wanted a live acting gig during the off-season of his comedy series, Big Bang Theory.

“He could have chosen anything,” publicist Molly Barnett told me, but Jim Parsons (who plays Sheldon on the sitcom) chose a role with “The Normal Heart.” His crisp acting and humorous delivery have been augmented by his considerable “star power” in the minds of show-going New York visitors that have helped to fill Broadway’s Golden Theater over and over.

This sitcom-avoiding writer had never heard of Jim Parsons before seeing “The Normal Heart,” but realizes now how important his role has been for getting Kramer’s message out in this amazing revival.


Nicholas Benton may be emailed at [email protected]

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