Battlefield Art: In Defense of “The Normal Heart”

By Anne E. Johnson

Today I heard from an intelligent, usually sensitive person with a great deal of experience watching theater. While his email was in praise of a local production of Terrence McNally’s Mothers and Sons, I was distressed by his contrasting of that play with Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart, which he called “a ham-handed political rant…which I hope never to see again in my life.”

This was my response:

“The Normal Heart and Mothers and Sons are, to my mind, not in the same genre, so I would not compare them. Kramer’s play is an accurately excruciating portrayal, not only of the time and society it represents, but of the playwright himself. It is autobiographical, and Larry Kramer has a shrieking, damaging personality. As much as anything, the play is a confession of that fact. And there was nothing subtle about the political Auschwitz that New York gays found themselves in during the 1980s. This does not mean you should like the play. It’s supposed to be almost impossible to watch, just as the period was almost impossible to live through. It’s an entirely different perspective from that of well-off 21st-century gays with the right to marry, or from a mother’s sorrowful memory.”

In other words, when a play is written in the middle of a real battlefield, the pages will likely be splattered with blood and skull fragments from the corpses tumbling by. But as gruesome and uncomfortable as that paper is to look at, the writing on it is still art.


Terrence McNally’s A PERFECT GANESH coming to @LunaStageCo

Here on Busker Alley, we don’t usually just quote press releases. But in this case, time is of the essence, lest you miss a rare opportunity to see one of Terrence McNally’s classic works:ganesh

Luna Stage begins 2015 with a revival of A Perfect Ganesh, Terrence McNally’s beautiful story of love and redemption. A Perfect Ganesh opens to previews on Thursday January 29, 2015 and runs Thursdays through Sundays through February 22nd. Opening night is Saturday January 31, 2015.  Select performances are followed by Talkbacks with the creative team. Tickets range from $25-$35.  Group sales available. $10 Student Rush tickets available one half-hour before curtain. Individual tickets can be purchased at, or at the box office Tues.-Fri. 10am-3pm (973-395-5551).

A Perfect Ganesh finds two outwardly unremarkable middle-aged women on a quest for meaning  via a rousing tour of India. Each woman having her own secret dreams of what the fabled land of intoxicating opposites will do for the suffering she hides within. Faced with the women’s despair, who but the golden elephant god could intervene? Fluid in his power to assume any guise, at peace with all things, Ganesha is the spiritual center around which the play spins itself, drawing upon the tragic and the comic, the beautiful and the deplorable, until a breathtaking release arrives for both women at his hands.

Luna Stage’s revival of A Perfect Ganesh is directed by James Glossman, and features a cast of four: Segun Akande, Mona Hennessy, James Rana, Linda Setzer. 
Luna Stage, a proud member of Valley Arts, is located at 555 Valley Road, West Orange, NJ 07052. The theatre is handicapped accessible and offers assistive listening devices.

Terrence McNally’s revamped IT’S ONLY A PLAY rough on Tommy Tune

The new production of Terrence McNally’s farce It’s Only a Play is more of a rewrite than a revival. The play is about the after-party on opening night of a Broadway show, and is chock-full of up-to-the-minute insider jokes about the theater scene. Therefore, doing a major revision made a lot of sense.mcnally plays

Having heard about this, I wondered whether this blog’s muse, Tommy Tune, would still be mentioned in the new version.  The play has a character named Gus, the young man in charge of bringing everyone’s coat up to the hostess’ bedroom. In the original 1985 script, Gus walks in at one point struggling with an incredibly long fur coat. The character James, a jaded actor, quips, “Don’t tell me. Let me guess. Tommy Tune, right?”

The other night I attended a preview performance of the new “It’s Only a Play.” It’s absolutely hilarious. And the Tommy Tune joke is still in. However, the jab has been extended and updated in an unfortunately nasty way. Gus brings in the fur coat. James makes his quip. But now Gus looks at him blankly, and James has to explain who Tommy Tune is, calling him a brilliant director and choreographer of musicals who “hasn’t done anything in twenty-five years.” Cue big laugh.

Yes, yes. It’s just a joke. And McNally is writing in James’ voice, not his own. But it’s also a nauseating reminder that, to some in the culture of Broadway, there is no other “real” theater. Tune has been very busy for the past quarter-century, creating shows for ZinZanni Theater in Seattle, for a national tour, for the Goodman in Chicago, for Holland America Cruise Lines, and for the University of Miami. That’s not to mention two years headlining in Vegas and the solo memoir show that he’s currently touring.

So, McNally’s new joke is as preposterous as imagining Tommy Tune in a full-length fur coat. Oh, wait…




First-generation AIDS plays for the new generation

The first cases of AIDS were found in North America in 1981; the HIV virus was isolated and named in 1984. Some of the best theatrical works of the late Twentieth Century focused on that plague. Now, twenty years later, those plays are being revisited with a combination of memory and new perspective.

Two of Harvey Fierstein’s AIDS plays are currently being performed in London at the Tristan Bates Theatre. When they were new in the 1980s, “Safe Sex” and “On Tidy Endings” were groundbreaking plays about gay men grappling with the horror of then new disease called AIDS. The central monologue of “Safe Sex” considers how people can continue to live full lives as they shudder under the emotional toll of ubiquitous death and a new-found fear of sex.

In 2010 Michael Greif’s intimate production of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America plays graced the stages of the Signature Theatre in New York. The twentieth anniversary of David Drake’s deeply personal work, The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me, was celebrated a year ago with a one-night-only benefit performance. The script was reworked to modernize it.

HBO’s much-touted film version of Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart will be shown starting May 25, 2014. This follows the Tony-winning Broadway production in 2011 of a play originally premiered Off-Broadway in 1985.

The next step beyond reviving classic AIDS plays is the creation of new works that  acknowledge the history and present of the disease. Leave it to playwright Terrence McNally to recognize this issue and encapsulate it in a work for theater. His new play, Mothers and Sons, currently at the Golden Theatre on Broadway, explores the changes in how AIDS affects different generations.

AIDS is still with us. In some parts of the world, it rages on as mercilessly as ever. If we in the “first world” become complacent about the disease, it may well threaten to drown us again. Whereas AIDS theater was once primarily a safety valve for expressing the almost inexpressibly painful, it has become an essential reminder of where we’ve been, how far we’ve come, and why we must never turn back.