Larry Kramer was a well-known activist and writer when he wrote "The Normal Heart," one of the first major plays on the AIDS crisis. In 1985, when it premiered, "The Normal Heart" was a wake-up call to action, a cri de coeur from an impassioned playwright who believed, like a character in a 1950s sci-fi film, that unless he sounded the alarm, everyone he knew would be wiped out by an unspeakable virus. More than any other play, this one defined the theater of the late '80s as a place where too-young writers examined mortality with a heartbreaking urgency, an absurdly familiar intimacy.
Today "The Normal Heart" is known as an Important Play. And in case anyone has forgotten: It is a good play, one that will continue to live after its specific political agenda is obsolete. Thursday night's reading of the play at the Coast Playhouse, the first performance in a two-week run to benefit AIDS research at the Salk Institute in La Jolla, ended with the actors and most of the audience in tears.
Under the direction of newly installed La Jolla Playhouse artistic director Michael Greif, a superb cast works with scripts in hand, an encumbrance that is swiftly forgotten. Tom Hulce plays Ned Weeks, an insistent and often annoying advocate, who, like Kramer in real life, is one of the founders of the Gay Men's Health Crisis. Next week, Tony Shalhoub takes over the role, and several other cast members will change as well.
Among much GMHC infighting, Weeks believes he alone knows the way to prod into action the slow-moving behemoths, the city government and the New York Times, in the days before the virus was discovered. This was the period when no one knew just how the disease was being passed or even how to protect oneself from it. Hulce captures the terror of that moment.
As a closeted New York Times reporter who falls in love with Weeks, David Hyde Pierce delivers perfect acerbic witticisms as naturally as breathing. From the original cast, Robert Dorfman is devastating as a city employee who, unlike Weeks, will lose his job if he shouts too loudly. David Marshall Grant plays Bruce, a conservative Citibank executive. Bruce is clearly an antecedent to Joe, the repressed lawyer Grant went on to play in "Angels in America," another character in whom you can practically see the ulcers growing as he struggles to do the right thing.
Today, "The Normal Heart" evokes "Angels in America," as well as many other events and plays that came later. Watching it, you may discover new ways of thinking about the failure of the Clinton health-care plan and the recent outing of Rolling Stone editor and publisher Jann Wenner. It reaches into the future and remains a document of the past. It is the rare play in which a writer has transformed an act of activism into an act of art.
* "The Normal Heart," Coast Playhouse, 8325 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood, (213) 660-8587. Thur.-Sun., 8 p.m. Ends March 19. $25. Running time: 2 hours, 50 minutes.