Liz Smith: Stars Come Out to Massage Larry Kramer’s “The Normal Heart”

Actor Joe Mantello

And more from our Liz: A star-studded evening featuring Christine Baranski, Nathan Lane, Sutton Foster, and Matthew Broderick … plus, Shirley MacLaine on “karmic drama” and the oddities of fame

“WHEN THE lights go down and the announcer comes on saying, ‘turn off all cell-phones and enjoy the play,’ I think, ‘Really? Is that really the correct word? I think for most people, it’s ‘endure’ the play.’”

That was the great actor Joe Mantello, at the party thrown by producer Daryl Roth after a special star-studded preview performance of Larry Kramer’s gripping, passionate indictment of governmental indifference and gay groups fighting each other against AIDS in the very first Broadway production of “The Normal Heart.”

Mantello looked properly exhausted after his strenuous efforts onstage at the Golden Theater, and he took congratulations leaning up against the wall of the small lobby where the party happened. He also said, “This is so important — not even so much for the subject matter, which is timeless despite its period, the early 1980’s, but because Larry deserved to see this show on Broadway. And it still resonates, on many levels.”

Among those pressing in on Mantello — and the rest of the brilliant  “Normal Heart” cast — were visitors Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick (“I came with him,” said Lane. Matthew shrugged and said, “So whatever happens it’s all my fault!”) … Judith Light, looking years younger and prettier than the harshly photographed judge on “Law and Order: SVU.”… manager Sandy Gallin, full faced and orange-tinted with a nice-looking blond … Bobby Cannavale, sexy, saturnine and slightly-bearded, was cozy with adorable “Anything Goes” star Sutton Foster, who wore — I swear — not a stitch of makeup. She resembled a 16-year-old … Joan Rivers and Rex Reed (they gossiped over whether or not Mayor Ed Koch, who is roasted in Kramer’s play, had ever seen it) … Great-looking Christine Baranski, who was devastated by the play, and told me about performing “Lips Together, Teeth Apart” down on Christopher Street years ago. “A young man came to see me. He was obviously dying. He looked the way John Benjamin Hickey does at the end of the play. It turned out that he had played young Patrick on Broadway in ‘Mame.’ I thought I would lose it right there in front of him. Thank God I didn’t.”

Baranski also got a big hug from cast member Jim Parsons, who looks much hotter up close than he does onstage. Of course the playwright himself was on hand: Mr. Kramer in his eternal overalls. He appeared blissful and more than a little shy — not a quality one usually associates with him. He was tugged at, petted, squeezed, kissed and generally worshipped. He had a looooooong conversation with Daily Beast/Newsweek columnist Jacob Bernstein. Michael Musto was there of course, always highly amused at the life he leads. And we spotted that eternal lady of the notepad, glamorous Cindy Adams, standing ramrod straight at the doors inside the theater, catching everybody who passed her way. Also spotted: Entertainment Weekly’s handsome Jess Cagle and PR guy Scott Gorenstein sporting his ACT UP button (Scott currently does his very good voodoo for Liza Minnelli.)

* * *

BUT THE most fun was my run-in with the divine Ellen Barkin. She plays tough-talking polio-stricken Dr. Emma, treating patient after patient only to watch them die terribly.

Miss Barkin weighs in at about 100 pounds. She has the flat tummy, slim hips and firm tush of a teenage boy. The bosom gives her away. She was fresh-faced and radiant. I asked her about the difficulties of performing in a wheelchair. “Well, I’m used to it now. But I hurt! I have to twist myself around a lot while I’m sitting. I wanted a rolling chair, but Joel (Joel Grey, the co-director) thought a motorized chair was more ominous. And I said, ‘But what about my arms? It would be such great upper-body exercise!’ Ominous won out.”

Ellen is also experiencing an upswing in her movie career. I’ve missed her crackling energy onscreen. She ‘s very excited about “Another Happy Day,” directed by Sam Levinson, and co-starring Demi Moore, Thomas Hayden Church and Kate Bosworth.

And we also had some laughs over her movie “Switch,” which was a modern update of the old “Goodbye Charlie” where the louse guy wakes up to find himself in the body a hot woman (Miss Barkin.) “You know, I loved Blake Edwards and I would do anything for him. But I wondered; he wanted the character to never quite master walking in heels — because I was really a guy. And I said ‘Well, maybe it’s too much?’ And he’d say, ‘Oh, no, trust me.’ Of course, he was right. That’s still my favorite movie.”

* * *

I’VE ALREADY given “The Normal Heart” a rave.  So I won’t go on much further. But watching again, it struck me that the show is in many ways a kind of fundamentalist testimonial. It’s Kramer’s church and he’s testifyin’. And he won’t stop until we listen.

The subject is AIDS. But Kramer’s raging words apply to so much else — to issues confronting us right now. Ten, twenty, thirty years from now, “The Normal Heart” will still beat, bleed and be heard. And more than likely —especially in Asia and Africa — people will still be dying of AIDS.

* * *

SHIRLEY MACLAINE is the great Oscar-winning actress/dancer who has had one marriage, many lovers and many many lives. And I’m not just talking about career lives — re-inventions. Although she’s had her share of those. As many of you know, MacLaine is on a magical mystery tour of being a woman of the ages, one who believes she has been other places in other times and will go on in her next life to some other existence.

So, is it not natural that MacLaine would have some Thoughts on next year. The year 2012. The year that the world is supposed to end. If you believe the Mayan calendar is correct. Shirley says, “The 2012 end date represents a cosmic choice we must each make. It really could be the end of our karmic drama, so to speak. I think we’re in for some big changes, but I don’t think it’s the end of anything.”

Hmmmm … well, if Donald Trump becomes president, our “karmic drama” might only have just begun! And stop laughing. More and more people — serious people — believe Trump will run.

Although I wonder how Donald will feel if he gets to The White House and discovers how little power the president actually has in many situations. Of course, Trump might try to alter our idea of an American presidency —maybe a little Emperor stuff around the edges of the Constitution.

Oh, as for Shirley, she has a new book out, titled “I’m Over All That: And Other Confessions.” Among her confessions is that she could never understand why some of her peers, back in the day would “dress up to go to the market.” Not Shirley. “I’m not interested in fame at all” she declares.

Well, perhaps in Shirley’s next life she’ll come back as a poor, unattractive, untalented person who’ll never even have the opportunity to be famous.

That’s pretty dramatic karma, too.



10 Responses so far.

  1. avatar Baby Snooks says:

    Things have changed and yet you can still walk into the hospices around the country and see the 20 and 30 year olds. The medications don’t work for everyone.  The hospices aren’t suddenly filled with 50, 60, 70 year olds.  Elizabeth Taylor gave an interview about ten years ago and made a comment about how sex with a condom doesn’t feel so good, but death feels worse.  The message just hasn’t gotten across. Which is why The Normal Heart is still timely. Not a look back at the way things were.  A look at the way things still are.

    Our children are misled into believiing that AIDS is just another sexually transmitted disease. And that a pill will make it go away. Quite a few pills every day forever sometimes do. But not for everyone. Those who can make the choice to wear a condom or withhold sex from someone who rerfuses to wear one and don’t would probably have better odds playing russian roullette with a gun instead of their bodies.  In this country, that is most everyone.  

    Some don’t have the choice. Even in this ccuntry. Men who know they have AIDS who knowingly spread it with their attitudes towards women should be tossed in the darkest of dungeons. 

    We have a long way to go with our regard to our attitudes. And with regard to AIDS.

    • avatar Mr. Wow says:

      The transmission rate remains alarmingly high.   As soon as the  “drug coctails” were available and appeared to work–allowing people to “live with AIDS” the safe-sex urgency of the 1980’s and early 90’s evaporated.  

      But who the hell knows the consequences?  These are toxic drugs.  I’d rather be disease-free than living “healthy” with AIDS.  I am not healthy. 

      • avatar Baby Snooks says:

        I know two “long-term survivors” who are now past the 20 year mark. You have good days. You have bad days. Baby Snooks knows about the bad days and sends you a big hug of love on your bad days. Which sometimes are really horrible days. Love is always the best pill to take on the bad days.  Elizabeth Taylor would almost always pop into an AIDS hospice when she was out and about promoting the perfumes.  “On the way to the airport.”  She would sit with patients and talk with them. And give them all hugs. No advance notice even to the hospices. She would just pop in.  It always surprised  me that the hospices didn’t “publicize” the visits. But they didn’t. But then it wasn’t Elizabeth Taylor who popped in. It was Earth Mother. Spreading hugs. Hugs of love.

  2. avatar Richard Bassett says:

    I am not sure that “The Normal Heart” will resonate with many of those who post on WoW though I may be presumptuous. I have seen this play several times, and am curious about what they are going to do with the film version (if one ever comes around). The play almost always has great reviews, and reflects advocacy at the beginning of the AIDS crisis. It was truly a gay disease from 1981-1984 and I lived in one of the most gay populated areas in America. West Hollywood. Throughout those three years, I was 23. I was still married to my wife (Heather), went through a painful divorce, and met my first long term partner (Randy). I was not working with Dr Gottlieb and Dr Royer yet…and Elizabeth Taylor was in “The Little Foxes” and Betty Ford. So I hadn’t even heard about it until 1984, and like many…thought it was another STD, treatable albeit more difficult. I just wasn’t out and about in those few years. No one talked about this, gay or straight. It was a very frustrating time for those who were aware of it from the beginning. We just didn’t have enough information. We DID believe in the promise that, like many viruses, a vaccine would be discovered. That was the face of AIDS in the very early years. ‘The Normal Heart’ portrays a man who was definitely ahead of his time. In the late 80’s, when the terror WAS beginning, we formed “ACT UP”, a group to represent us in advocacy. They marched and fought for funding, research, education, social services and they were not very delicate in their presentations. Elizabeth Taylor was the famous face who took everything to a higher level, due to her fame. I didn’t live those years (81-84) in regards to AIDS. Many people (alive today) are aware of those few years and remember the difficulty in putting a face on the disease. We did not get the support or importance. It is hard to be teary eyed today, because we know (I hope) how AIDS has evolved. The crisis was at its peak from 1985 to 1996, when we had one limited medication to work with. That is the history of AIDS that I remember…along with the belief “Well, this will never happen to me”. I am glad that the NYC theatrical community is still so supportive of the play, but I doubt that those few years are familiar with the audience, we well. But, through harsh advocacy…the foundation that we have today is based on those confusing years. Bravo!

    • avatar Jane H says:

      Richard, I , too, remember those early scary years. I’m straight, but quite grateful I was through with my indiscriminate ‘partying’ days before HIV/AIDS came along. I had the delusion that I’d be able to ‘tell’ if someone were not well…
      What I didn’t know about, and learned through watching the PBS special on the Stonewall Riot, was how terribly ignorant and afraid we were. A detective was shown addressing a school auditorium threating the children with criminal prosecution if they associated with gay people. The description of the treatment and misinformation and ignorance and fear and hatred was eye-opening for me. I thought I knew how bad it was, but I didn’t have a clue.

      I just lost my church choir director to complications from AIDS. We almost lost him fifteen years ago or so until he started the ‘cocktail’. I’m feeling a collective grief, I suppose, for the past and what I didn’t know or do anything about; some consolation for my volunteer efforts to help, gratitude that things are significantly better, hope for the future.

      • avatar Richard Bassett says:

        You are right Jane. I was only depicting the medical aspect but the social issues that AIDS ignited was catastrophic. And people were really not judging on a moral level, they were acting out of fear…especially at the beginning when very little information was known. The premise was: ‘If it’s a gay disease, let’s get rid of the gays’. Throughout the past thirty years, the dust has settled and society is not acting out of panic any longer. Those with AIDS still are discriminated against but it is the exception now, and not the norm. There will always be an element of fear, as it is a fatal disease. Society has caught up with medical interventions. I am so sorry to hear about your church choir director. People do still die of the complications of AIDS, usually when the virus becomes resistant to the medication, or a secondary immune base disease is contracted. It certainly is not like it once was. Those of us, who work / have worked in the field, are always on the pulse of new developments.

      • avatar Baby Snooks says:

        One of the worst realities of the “Dark Ages” was the hypocrisy and of course while law enforcement was bashing heads in all around the country they weren’t bashing heads in at corporate offices or law firms or in the halls of Congress where the “Boys Clubs” still exist.  One of the dark secrets that doesn’t fit in with the pretty picture. Outing as it’s called has changed it somewhat. But sometimes outing merely  costs someone a job. Some stay in the closet because it allows them to abuse others the way they were abused on their “way to the top.” Others stay in the clsoset siplky mlly to protect their job.

        The worst of the hypocrites was Roy Cohn. But then some of his friends were hypocrites as well. Nancy Reagan among them. Some might say foremost among them.  Someone told me once Roy Cohn was merely one of Nancy Reagan’s “walkers” as they’re still called.  He was no one’s “walker” and his boys weren’;t the only ones on leashes. Once he did a “favor” for you, were you were his forever. He never let anyone forget who he destroyed for them. His way of reminding them he could destroy them as well.

  3. avatar Paul Smith says:

    Richard, I used to know people from the first wave of the disease. Then, one by one, you know the rest. A doctor informed me some years back that HIV infection was on the rise, and it was largely within the Latino/African American communities. Forgive me for saying that there is a perceptible drop in urgency now that the groups affected have shifted somewhat. These groups will not be in the audience for “The Normal Heart” I suspect, so maybe Mr. Kramer should adapt and take his show on the road.

    • avatar Richard Bassett says:


      Those in New York City, and part of the Broadway circuit will be attended the play. Anywhere there is a mecca of Gay men will relate to the play, as well. The rate of infection for young white gay male population in the USA is rising, slightly (not drastically). They know the information and are willing to take the pills instead of being terrified (as I was) of having sex. I suspect that this is across the board for young people, in general, so our approach regarding education has to be progressive with the times. Slowly, safer sex practices are improving. Today, in the USA, we are pretty well educated with that. Even being HIV positive, the younger crowd are getting through college and finding rewarding careers. The rate of infection may be reflected higher because testing is easier to do. That fact alone will spike a raise. Today, it isn’t uncommon for one infected twenty years ago to never spend a day of illness due to the classifications of medication. This rate is growing, rapidly. Now, the majority of social service jobs are targeting the Latino/ black community for a number of social reasons: problems in communication, low income, addiction, a lack of esteem, hopelessness and globally, the Latino/ black population is so much greater, with so many variables, than our white population in the USA. The drop in urgency (which is indicative of 2011) is counter balanced by the access to services available focusing on this specific population. So, it may seem that they are being pushed aside but jobs and funding are increasing for this population. The same thing happened in the white community twenty years ago. The message is clear: AIDS is still with us; people are living longer and dying of complications of AIDS, or another disease. Also, medication resistance destroys the immune system. It is being shown that this information is not reaching (or not being understood) by the Latino/black community so that is where the employment opportunities are being funded. It is our hope that everyone understands what having HIV/AIDS means ‘today’. Globally, the situation is not the same. In other continents it is a challenge to even get the medication to these people…never mind the amount of education. It is happening at a snail’s pace, one population at a time and will continue to be a source of great concern for the future. New classes of medications are being developed and speeded through clinical trials…and any hope for a vaccine is still dismal.

  4. avatar Bella Mia says:

    Wise people do in the beginning what foolish people do eventually.

    Sex is nature’s messy way of reproduction – it’s not designed to be “safe.” So to claim that it can be made “safe” gives the wrong impression to young people. When people believe that a risky behavior has been made “safer” they increase their risky behavior to match the former perceived level of risk. It’s called risk homeostasis:

    “This is the theory that humans behave in such a way that if a risk is identified in a given system, and is reduced by design, then a compensatory increase in risk-taking will occur somewhere else in the system. Thus, in an experiment in Germany, drivers of taxis provided with better brakes tended to drive worse than drivers not so supplied, although their accident rate remained constant.”

    Another glaring example is the urban Memphis Tennesse High School in which 90 students were either pregnant or had recently given birth. 50 years ago, before the civil rights movement, these out of wedlock pregnancy levels did not exist – but they were predicted with the advent of readily available birth control for young teens and access to abortion.