Any honest critic will occasionally find himself out on a lonely limb, and this week it's my turn. To me and apparently no one else, Arena Stage's The Normal Heart -- a historically vital play about the early years of the AIDS epidemic in New York City -- is morally worthy but artistically wanting. I am girding myself for hate mail.
People sometimes make fun of Ford's Theatre's presidential history plays for being dowdy and pedantic; for being more interested in teaching us A Very Important Lesson than in taking us somewhere. That's how The Normal Heart felt to me, albeit with a lot more crying. (Also, I tend to like the musty presidential histories.) I happen to agree with the play's politics, as I understand them -- though that really shouldn't matter at all -- and I acknowledge in my review that activist/playwright Larry Kramer was writing in a time and place when subtlety would not have been an appropriate or effective response to the nightmare he and his peers were living through.
I just don't think the preachy, shouty play he wrote holds up, removed from that urgent context. Your mileage may, and probably will, vary.
But I lurrrved Theater J's The History of Invulnerability, which ties in the sad tale of Jerry Siegel getting rooked out of the rights to his wildly lucrative creation, Superman, with an exponentially sadder one, and mostly gets away with it. Ironically, it too makes liberal use of the direct-address lecture format, but it works better here because the characters acknowledge they're speaking to the audience when speaking to the audience instead of being forced to pass off their diatribes as dialogue, like in some plays I could name and already have.
Read all about it in today Daily Pla -- er, Washington City Paper, available (all together now) wherever finer alt-weeklies are given away for free.
Hat tip to my City Paper editor, Jon Fischer, for the title of this post. We thought it a little too inside to use in the paper.