Thursday, 5 June 2014

Larry Kramer's THE NORMAL HEART on HBO and Terrence McNally's MOTHERS AND SONS on Broadway

     I couldn't help noticing the parallels when I went back to MOTHERS AND SONS a day after watching the superb production of Larry Kramer's THE NORMAL HEART on HBO. Kramer's play was written at the height of the AIDS epidemic: McNally's play gives us a middle-aged gay man who is still haunted by memories of that epidemic. Kramer's play ends with a deathbed "marriage" ceremony between the central character and his dying lover at a time when same-sex marriage was unthinkable: McNally's play, set in the present, centers on a married gay couple with a child. At the heart of both plays is a character who is filled with rage. Both plays present gay couples who are almost too good to be true.
     I have always had profoundly mixed feelings about THE NORMAL HEART. I admire its power and its passion, but also find it irritatingly self-indulgent. Kramer cannot distance himself from his autobiographical central character, Ned Weeks (Mark Ruffalo). The play presents Weeks as a courageous hero and also a martyr to his more cautious colleagues at the Gay Men's Health Crisis who eventually expel their founding member because he has no political sense at all. Kramer wants us to see Weeks's opponents as craven, lacking his courage, but one cannot help but sympathize with their difficult decision to rid themselves of a person who is so adept at making enemies. THE NORMAL HEART is an interesting picture of the problematic side of the radical leader who has the right cause but the wrong tactics. Of course, history tells us that it was the radical firebrands of ACT UP who ultimately had more effect than the more cautious, though admirable folks in GMHC. I'm not sure Kramer sees this, but Ned Weeks has no empathy, no ability to understand the other side. I am also puzzled by the loving relationship between Ned and his lover, Felix, brilliantly played by Matt Bomer. Beyond physical attraction (who isn't attracted to Matt Bomer?), what does Ned see in Felix. Does Ned ever listen to him? What does Felix see in hotheaded Ned? Kramer seems to be so in love with himself that he doesn't feel the need to explain anyone's love for his alter ego. There are a number of scenes in which Ned harangues his successful lawyer brother for not accepting him when the brother does his best to do just that. I know this is a very personal take on THE NORMAL HEART that will offend the play's many champions, but the play could be titled "Song of Myself." I whole-heartedly agree with the play's  political point of view, which is a critique of the priority of sexual liberation that caused gay men to resist the calls for caution.
     Much of the second half of the play is devoted to Ned's caring for Felix as he wastes away (Bomer lost 40 pounds to play his final scenes), and loses the ability to fight the inevitable. Ned, of course, can never stop fighting. I had just seen Michael Haneke's brilliant film AMOUR, about an elderly man trying to care for his wife who has become a total invalid. Love in that film is not romance, but steadfastly caring for a loved one when he or she can no longer care for herself. It is selflessness. For all his faults, Ned tries to do that for Felix.
     THE NORMAL HEART gives us a powerful picture of young men trying to take some control of an uncontrollable, tragic situation while trying to hold on to their new-found pride in being gay. We of Kramer's generation fought hard to overcome the shame we had been taught and AIDS was an excuse once again to blame the victim. The HBO version is another classic AIDS-era narrative, a worthy companion to the film LONGTIME COMPANION, the teleplay AND THE BAND PLAYED ON and classic AIDS-era plays like Tony Kushner's ANGELS IN AMERICA and Terrence McNally's LOVE! VALOUR! COMPASSION! Ryan Murphy has produced and directed it effectively and the cast couldn't be better. Mark Ruffalo may be too nice to play Ned, but who would play it better? In addition to Bomer, the supporting cast is excellent. Everyone gets what French dramatist call a"tirade", a big, long, hyper-emotional speech and all make them work on camera, which isn't easy. Joe Mantello gets one of the most emotional moments and plays it powerfully. Taylor Kitsch and Jim Parsons play the more reasonable characters, but hold their own with all the shouting going on around them. Kitsch is one of those honest, intense actors who can steal a scene without saying a word. Alfred Molina does all he can with the role of Ned's brother.
     For all my reservations, this is an unmissable film. Thanks to Ryan Murphy for fighting for the project and making it such a success.
     In MOTHERS AND SONS, Cal (Frederick Weller), did all he could to take care of his lover Andre during the epidemic, even though Andre wasn't faithful to him and could have put him to risk. Now over two decades later, he is a successful money manager with a handsome, charming young husband Will (Bobby Steggert), who is a stay-at-home Dad to their six-year-old son Bud. The family lives in a lovely Central Park West apartment and seems to have everything. Their life is a contrast to Cal's young love with Andre in a basement flat in lower Manhattan. Of course, marriage wasn't possible back then -- almost unthinkable really -- and parenting was out of the question. Into this calm, idyllic life comes turbulent Katherine (Tyne Daly), Andre's mother.  Will rightly asks her why she is there, but I'm not sure Katherine knows why. He also tells her that she's "prickly," which is an understatement. Katherine is angry at everything, most of all at the fact that unhappiness is her default mode. She never loved her husband and looked to her son to compensate for her own misery but he got away from the misery as soon as he could. What does Katherine want from her dead son's former lover? She is furious that he has moved on and she hasn't  and furious at her self for not moving on. She is furious at Andre for leaving her and predeceasing her. She is also deeply lonely. Katherine is a wonderful, rich character and Tyne Daly's performance is simply a knockout. Here's a gay man's Madame Rose from GYPSY (well of course Madame Rose was created by gay men and Tyne Daly was one of the legendary Roses), another monster mother who looked to her child for something he couldn't possibly provide and can't get over her anger at his failings as a son -- of course being gay was part of those failings -- and her failings as a wife and mother. Katherine at first hates what she sees in Cal and Will's home, but also finds it impossible to leave. In a way, she has nowhere else to go. The play's resolution may be a bit pat, but MOTHERS AND SONS is a powerful 95 minute drama from the man who has spent his career chronicling aspects of gay life.
     For some reason the gay critics at the TIMES are very snide about MOTHERS AND SONS. It's an old-fashioned play but a brilliantly crafted one. In an age in which playwrights seem to have difficulty writing scenes more than five minutes long, it's a treat to see a play that is one long scene played in real time. I hope it wins the Tony Sunday night. It certainly deserves it more than the pointless, overlong ACT ONE or the plodding ALL THE WAY.

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