Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Broadway Postcard No. 2: Timely reminders of the AIDS epidemic

Larry Kramer and Joe Mantello.


By Hap Erstein


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.

1 comment:

Paula said...

It’s been 30 years! We are long overdue for a cure! Please support re:solve AIDS and the Chronic Disease Fund. resolvefromcdf.org