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A Decade Later, 'Heart' Has New Meaning : Theater: 'The Normal Heart' pioneered AIDS-themed works. An original cast member, who will participate in readings for the play's anniversary, says events in the ensuing years alter the audience's response.

March 09, 1995|DON SHIRLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

During the curtain call after one of the first performances of Larry Kramer's "The Normal Heart" in New York in 1985, cast member D. W. Moffett was stunned by the appearance of one of the audience members who was applauding the landmark play, which is a story of the early New York battles against AIDS.

"There standing in front of me was a man barely recognizable because of the lesions on his face. I thought, 'Oh my God!' I suddenly felt the weight of what we were doing."

This experience was repeated often during the production. "Even on hot August days, we never had a sense that we would just skate through the play, because we always knew that someone was there who was dying. It may be the most profound theatrical event I've been in because of that proximity of life and death."

More than any other script, "The Normal Heart" also pioneered the wave of AIDS-themed plays and the few AIDS-themed movies that have followed in its wake. It may soon become a movie itself--after years of negotiations, it is "probably" the leading candidate to become the next Barbra Streisand-directed movie, said a Streisand spokesman.

To mark the 10th anniversary of that historic first production at New York's Public Theater, Moffett and four other members of the original cast are reuniting in a series of readings of "The Normal Heart" at the Coast Playhouse in West Hollywood. Ticket sales will benefit the Salk Institute's AIDS research program.

Three of the original cast members won't actually appear until next week. This week, the original cast's Robert Dorfman and Concetta Tomei will be joined by Tom Hulce (who played the leading role of Ned Weeks in London and New Haven), Cotter Smith, David Hyde Pierce of "Frasier" fame, David Marshall Grant (back in L.A. after months of "Angels in America" on Broadway), Roy Brocksmith and Michael Kearns.

Dorfman and Tomei will return next week, to be joined by Moffett and two other original cast members, David Allen Brooks and Phillip Richard Allen.

Three of the original cast members died of complications related to AIDS, most famously Brad Davis, the first actor to play Ned Weeks. Hulce will do that role this week, and Tony Shalhoub will tackle it next week. The roles of the other actors who died, William DeAcutis and Lawrence Lott, will be filled next week by the men who initially replaced them in New York--Malcolm Smith and Tom Mardirosian, respectively. Only one living cast member, Michael Santoro, won't be on hand; his small roles will be read by Jon Powell, whose Island Park Productions is producing the event.

The readings will be directed by a man who has never seen a production of "The Normal Heart": Michael Greif, the new artistic director at La Jolla Playhouse. Greif is well acquainted with the text, he said. A few years ago, he was a resident director at the Public Theater, where, he said, the play is part of "the theater's lore."

Many playwrights see "The Normal Heart" as "seminal," Greif said. "It angered a lot of people, and it got some people off their butts." Greif said he might someday consider Kramer's play for a La Jolla season, although, as he pointed out, it doesn't fall into the two categories of plays La Jolla specializes in--reinterpreted classics and new plays.

"It has almost become a historical play," Moffett said. The anger it arouses now stems from the question "Why wasn't something done?," he said, but that's "a different feeling than it was in 1985, because so much more has been done. Back then it was a wake-up call. Now so many more have participated in the tragedy, and the play serves as a forge for common grieving, as well as a celebration of what has been accomplished."

* "The Normal Heart," Coast Playhouse, 8325 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood, (213) 660-8587. Thur.-Sun., 8 p.m. Ends March 19. $25.

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