Brief Encounter   PLAYBILL ON-LINE'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER with Larry Kramer
Nearly 20 years after it arrived Off-Broadway as a dramatic Cassandra decrying America's criminal apathy in the face of the growing AIDS crisis, Larry Kramer's landmark political play, The Normal Heart is back on the New York stage.
Playwright Larry Kramer
Playwright Larry Kramer Photo by Michael O'Brien

The work, which in 1985 was one of the first dramas to address the epidemic, is now a history play, covering events that Kramer lived through from 1981 to 1984. It remains, however, sadly topical. AIDS has only expanded its reach in the past two decades; at present, 70 million cases have been reported worldwide. Kramer has been absent from the New York stage since his follow-up to The Normal HeartThe Destiny of Me—premiered at the Lucille Lortel Theatre more than a decade ago. He talked to Playbill On-Line about both plays, why he has never written another drama, how The Normal Heart has changed with the passage of time and why a film of the play has never been made.

Playbill On-Line: I'd forgotten that The Normal Heart ends with a gay marriage. That was prescient of you.
Larry Kramer: I can not tell you how much aggravation I got from people for doing that—that I was being corny and blah, blah, blah. I was criticized for two things: for being so corny as to put in a marriage, and for putting the Dr. Emma Brookner character in a wheelchair, as if I made that up.

PBOL: Did you make any changes in the script for this revival?
LK: Yes. The scene at the beginning of Act II, when the doctor talks about her polio. We did it in London; it was written for the original production, but it was never done for a variety of reasons. In London it didn't work, because we didn't know how to deal with [the doctor's] braces. We were able to do it here in a much simpler way. I also wanted to give more to Joanna [Gleason, who plays the doctor], because she's such an incredible actress and a name, and we were lucky to get her. The very first time we did it, it got applause, so it stayed in.

PBOL: Any other changes?
LK: Yes. It's kind of funny; I wrote about 18 screenplays for Barbra Streisand...

PBOL: Does she still have the film rights to the play?
LK: Oh, heavens no. But she wants them back again, after 10 years of not making it. There was one screenplay I was particularly fond of, so I left a copy of that for the actors to read if they wanted. And just about every one of them found a couple of lines that they scavenged and wanted for their part. In most cases, I agreed. The play runs longer now, because of both of these things. But it seems to hold. If it transfers, I'm already told, I've got to cut. I said, "Never!" PBOL: So what happened with Barbra?
LK: Well, we're still friends. She wanted to direct it and she wanted to play the doctor, Emma, when we first made our deal in 1987. She could have played it then. But she had it for 10 years and as she aged; she was too old [to play Brookner], and she knew it. But she always wanted to direct it. When push came to shove, she always had a bunch of projects she was working on, and she always chose the other one. I sat by while she made "Nuts" and "The Prince of Tides" and "The Mirror Has Two Faces"—that's when I blew my cool. I said, "Barbra, you made this piece of junk instead of The Normal Heart? Goodbye." She was getting a lot of pressure from her advisors not to make it, that it would ruin her career, blah, blah, blah. So her heart was in the right place, but her courage wasn't.

PBOL: So who has the rights now?
LK: Me! They come out of the woodwork once a year [to ask about it]. It's gotten to the point that, when they inquire, "I say I'm not interested in incurring more legal fees unless you make a serious offer. And I'm not willing to sell it for peanuts." So, they sort of fall apart.

PBOL: When Worth Street approached you about doing a revival, what was your reaction?
LK: I didn't want to do it. I knew [Worth Street publicist] Carol Fineman, because she did the publicity on the first Normal Heart, but I didn't know the director [Jeff Cohen].

PBOL: How did they convince you?
LK: I think Carol must have pestered me for close on two years. I wanted to do a play called The Destiny of Me, which is the second part of this play and was done quite successfully in New York at the Lortel, and was never done anywhere else, even though it got all kinds of awards. At one place it was done, somewhere in southern California. That's one reason why I never wrote another play. No one will do Destiny anywhere. That bothered me so much I said "Why do I waste time writing plays?" About two years ago, some kid contacted my London agent and he talked my agent into letting him do it in London at a fringe theatre. I went to this little theatre and it was the biggest dump you ever saw and the stage was as big the top of a desk. And it was just magic. Unbelievable magic. He had managed to corral some of the best actors in London, and it got incredible reviews. What I'm longing for is the two plays will be done with the same cast in two parts, like Angels in America. I was trying to get someone to do it that way here. Which is why I didn't really commit to Worth Street. I was in conversation with [New York Theatre Workshop artistic director] Jim Nicola and [director] James Lapine to do them both, and then that fell apart.

PBOL: When you saw the play in performance, how did the play hit you, some 20 years after it was written?
LK: I realized at the first reading that it was an entirely different play. The other play was about anger. This is about tragedy. You walk in knowing there are 70 million cases around and the play's about this bunch of kids screaming about 30 cases. You start to cry much faster. It does make people very angry, but it makes them cry a lot.

PBOL: Do you think the play changed things, made a difference the way art rarely, but sometimes can?
LK: You'll have to answer that. I don't think anything I do changes anything, and if it did, how come there are 70 million cases now?

PBOL: It's a really ripe moment for political theatre, what with all that's going on in the world. Yet, so many of the topical plays that have appeared since Sept. 11 have not been very satisfying. What would be your advice to playwrights today who are trying to write political theatre?
LK: Well, it was shown to me how to write this as a play by going to London and seeing a play by David Hare called Plenty. We don't have any role models for political theatre in this country. I don't think people know how to write a political play, or would consider writing a political play, because the plays we're taught to like and emulate are not political plays. It's the same with fiction. I would say go to England and look at some of those plays, the stuff that Michael Frayn is turning out.

PBOL: Let me ask you about "The American People: A History." In your Playbill bio, it says you've been writing it since 1979 and it's 3,000 pages long. Sounds like a sort of Joe Gould project, something long promised which never appears.
LK: Oh, please. You may be one of the few people I know who knows who Joe Gould was. My editor, who's head of Hyperion Books and my literary executor, he's the only one who's read the whole thing. And he loves it. He doesn't want it shorter and even if it gets longer, he wants it. That's kept me going.

PBOL: What is it, exactly?
LK: It started to be about AIDS. I'm the only writer left alive who has been on the front lines since the very beginning, who's also a competent writer. I know all the cast of characters from day one, and the science, the government, the research. Sometimes, when I get real down, I say to myself, "I've got to finish it, I'm the only person who can write this book." I think sometimes I've been spared to write it. I hold that irrational thought. In writing about what was happened with AIDS, I realized it wasn't so much about what was happening now, as what was happening before that led to this. Before I knew it, there I was with the monkeys in the Everglades. It's about America, about illness in America, about being gay in American, about a lot of people whom we don't think about as being gay, but were; exploring all these things. There are no characters you follow all the way through. You're basically following a virus all the way through. That's what holds it together.

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