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THEATER REVIEW : Kramer Turns Inward With 'Destiny'

May 18, 1994|ROBERT KOEHLER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The destiny of Larry Kramer has been to disturb.

Disturb his family with the revelation of his gay identity. Disturb gays with his clarion calls, long before the AIDS crisis, for monogamy. And disturb presumptions of those who assume that any play by America's Angriest Gay Man is going to be just, well, angry.

"The Destiny of Me," Kramer's follow-up to his earlier, very angry "The Normal Heart," is much more interesting precisely because it is not a polemic. (It is also not mandatory to have seen the previous play.) Too often in the first installment of his story of AIDS activist, writer and alter-ego Ned Weeks, Kramer was pointing the finger at others, like Ronald Reagan and the New York Times.

With "Destiny," Kramer is frequently pointing the finger at himself. He does, in essence, just what many of his critics believed him incapable of doing.

In its West Coast premiere at International City Theatre under Shashin Desai's direction, this translates into a sometimes deeply felt thoughtfulness--as if, with all of the people dying, we have time to consider Ned Weeks.

In this theater, at least, we do, because both Kramer and Desai's cast are serious about presenting the Weeks family without the customary cheap laughs, cheaper stereotypes or unearned pathos. "The Destiny of Me" is consciously in the American tradition of the family/memory drama, deep in the soil cultivated by Eugene O'Neill and Arthur Miller.

In one of the play's several ironies, Ned (a plain, stalwart Thomas Tofel, HIV-positive, has volunteered as a guinea pig for a new treatment devised by his nemesis, Dr. Anthony Della Vida of the National Institute of Health (Michael Tomlinson, in a role based on AIDS researcher Dr. Anthony Fauci).

While ACT-UP protesters raise a ruckus outside and inside the hospital as he debates with the acerbic nurse (a witty Peggy Blow, Ned's memories of growing up gay, and of his younger self as a character, Alexander (Jonathan Slavin ), begin to dominate.

Slavin informs Alexander--who renames himself Ned at age 18 as an act of liberation from mom and dad--with a gawky adolescent giddiness that gradually and brilliantly transforms into desperation. Looming over him is a father (Richard Voigts) uncontrollably angry at Alexander's effeminacy, and a mother (Dianne Turley Travis) who tries to compensate for her neglect of older son Benjamin (Kelly AuCoin) by doting on Alexander.

The ensuing explosions take a lifetime to come to terms with, but the power Slavin, Voigts, Travis and AuCoin generate is curtailed by some extremely fake fight choreography. (Jamieson K. Price did the "fight scene consultation.") Kramer also seems to undermine his own agenda against the psychoanalysts who tried to "cure" gay men by filling the Ned-Benjamin confrontation scenes with psychoanalytic banter.

A turn in the dialogue, though, shows that Kramer is aware of the contradiction, almost making fun of his playwriting tastes for psychological realism. Ramsey Avery's '90s-deco set isn't real at all (except for a ton of real medical equipment), and Tom Ruzika's shifting light moods bring us inside Ned's head. Which is what Kramer has done so much more affectingly this time.

* "The Destiny of Me," International City Theatre, Long Beach City College, Clark and Harvey Way. Fridays and Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 and 7 p.m. Ends June 19. $16. (310) 420-4128 or 420-4051. Running time: 2 hours, 55 minutes.

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