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‘Heart’ of the matter

Gay-penned classic gets first-ever D.C.-area production



Larry Kramer, The Normal Heart, HIV/AIDS, Arena Stage, gay news, Washington Blade

Patrick Breen, left, as Ned and Luke MacFarlane as Felix in ‘The Normal Heart’ at Arena Stage. (Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy Arena )

‘The Normal Heart’
Through July 29
Arena Stage
1101 6th Street, SW

Larry Kramer’s “The Normal Heart,” is aging well, breathtakingly so. This was proved last year on Broadway and it’s being demonstrated again with a powerfully searing production now playing at Arena Stage.

When Kramer’s biographical take on the early days of the AIDS crisis premiered in New York in 1985, gay men were dying in large numbers and then-President Reagan had yet to utter the word “AIDS” publicly, so not surprisingly the gay playwright’s words reportedly rang angry and alarmed. Today, Arena’s stripped-down and fast-paced revival helmed by gay director George C. Wolfe (who co-staged the Tony-winning Broadway version) still conveys the fury and fear while embracing the empathy and sadness also found in Kramer’s stunning play.

Kramer’s script wastes no time in establishing the horror of the situation. Seated in their doctor’s waiting room (circa 1981 Manhattan), several gay men tensely discuss the still nameless plague that is making them ill and killing their friends. They talk early symptoms (swollen glands, night sweats, fatigue), treatment (almost nothing) and chances of survival (slim). As one patient exits the office revealing a youthful face jarringly marred by Kaposi sarcoma lesions, another enters collapsing from the effects of a violent seizure. The plague is on and it’s going to get worse.

The action focuses on irascible but likeable writer/activist Ned Weeks, a Kramer stand-in superbly played with nuance and great heart by Patrick Been. After several informational meetings and an examination with Dr. Brookner (Patricia Wettig), a prickly physician whose patients include many of the epidemics’ first victims, Ned is convinced that gay men will need to save themselves. He suspects the disease is sexually transmitted.

Determined to rally gays to action, Ned creates an advocacy group similar to Gay Men’s Health Crisis (co-founded by Kramer), and manages to grow the organization despite a lack of support from closeted New York City Mayor Ed Koch and a largely apathetic gay community. Eventually, Ned’s co-members, wrongly but understandably, reject his increasingly angry style as well as his promotion of total abstinence (the concept of safe sex would come later). “We just feel that you can’t tell people how to live,” says Bruce (Nick Mennell), one of the organization’s more popular members. Ned is forced out.

More than a tirade, “The Normal Heart” is also an absorbing family drama. Ned has the love and support of his hotshot lawyer brother played by John Procaccino, but yearns for his total acceptance. It’s also a medical mystery and quite strikingly, a sweet love story. While the plague rages, Ned unexpectedly finds love with Felix, a New York Times style writer beautifully played by handsome gay actor Luke Macfarlane. He’s Ned’s first serious lover.

In the second act when Felix is diagnosed with the deadly virus, he warns Ned that things will become messy, and indeed they do. Messy and heartbreaking, as evidenced by the ongoing sniffles and stifled sobs heard throughout Arena’s Kreeger Theatre.

Plague weary, the central characters finally crack in a series of emotionally raw monologues. Beleaguered activist Mickey (subtly played by Michael Berresse) considers suicide; the typically reserved Dr. Brookner rails against the smug government doctor who refuses her application for a grant; conservative Bruce, a bank V.P. and former Green Beret, dissolves to tears explaining his late lover’s humiliating death; and Ned fiercely expresses his disappointment with the gay community’s inadequate early response to the epidemic.

David Rockwell’s stark set is quietly monumental: White walls embossed with AIDS-related words and phrases (also white) which — depending on the David Weiner’s smart lighting — can or cannot be seen in relief. Also, various locale descriptions and, most affectively, the names of actual AIDS victims are projected on to the set. As the play progresses, these projected names grow exponentially.

The terrific cast also includes Christopher J. Hanke as Tommy Boatwright, a saucy but caring southerner; Jon Levenson as the mayor’s imperious aide de camp; local actor Chris Dinolfo is the young patient with K.S; and Tom Berklund plays Grady, a dim but well-built volunteer.

For Kramer, who learned he was HIV-positive in 1988, “The Normal Heart” might simply serve as proof that he was right all along, but that’s antithetical to his fighting spirit. At Arena, leaflets penned by Kramer decrying the un-won global war on AIDS are distributed to audience members as they leave. The battle continues.



PHOTOS: DCGFFL 25th Anniversary Party

Gay flag football league marks milestone at Penn Social



The D.C. Gay Flag Football league held a party celebrating their 25th season at Penn Social on Saturday. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

The D.C. Gay Flag Football League (DCGFFL) held a 25th season anniversary party at Penn Social on Saturday, Sept. 23. Proceeds from the event benefited the LGBTQ youth services organization SMYAL as well as the D.C. Center for the LGBTQ Community.

(Washington Blade photos by Michael Key)

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New book goes behind the scenes of ‘A League of Their Own’

‘No Crying in Baseball’ offers tears, laughs, and more



(Book cover image courtesy of Hachette Books)

‘No Crying in Baseball: The Inside Story of ‘A League of Their Own’
By Erin Carlson
c.2023, Hachette Books
$29/320 pages

You don’t usually think of Madonna as complaining of being “dirty all day” from playing baseball. But that’s what the legendary diva did during the shooting of “A League of Their Own,” the 1992 movie, beloved by queers.

“No Crying in Baseball,” the fascinating story behind “A League of Their Own,” has arrived in time for the World Series. Nothing could be more welcome after Amazon has cancelled season 2 of its reboot (with the same name) of this classic film.

In this era, people don’t agree on much. Yet, “A League of Their Own” is loved by everyone from eight-year-old kids to 80-year-old grandparents.

The movie has strikes, home runs and outs for sports fans; period ambience for history buffs; and tears, laughs and a washed-up, drunk, but lovable coach for dramady fans.

The same is true for “No Crying in Baseball.” This “making of” story will appeal to history, sports and Hollywood aficionados. Like “All About Eve” and “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” “A League of Their Own” is Holy queer Writ.

Carlson, a culture and entertainment journalist who lives in San Francisco, is skilled at distilling Hollywood history into an informative, compelling narrative. As with her previous books, “I’ll Have What She’s Having: How Nora Ephron’s three Iconic Films Saved the Romantic Comedy” and “Queen Meryl: The Iconic Roles, Heroic Deeds, and Legendary Life of Meryl Streep,” “No Crying in Baseball,” isn’t too “educational.” It’s filled with gossip to enliven coffee dates and cocktail parties.

“A League of Their Own” is based on the true story of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL). From 1943 to 1954, more than 600 women played in the league in the Midwest. The league’s players were all white because the racism of the time prohibited Black women from playing. In the film, the characters are fictional. But the team the main characters play for – the Rockford Peaches – was real.

While many male Major and Minor League Baseball players were fighting in World War II, chewing gum magnate Philip K. Wrigley, who owned the Chicago Cubs, founded the league. He started the AAGPBL, “To keep spectators in the bleachers,” Carlson reports, “and a storied American sport–more important: his business afloat.” 

In 1943, the Office of War Information warned that the baseball season could be “scrapped” “due to a lack of men,” Carlson adds.

“A League of Their Own” was an ensemble of women’s performances (including Rosie O’Donnell as Doris, Megan Cavanagh as Marla, Madonna as Mae, Lori Petty as Kit and Geena Davis as Dottie) that would become legendary.

Girls and women  still dress up as Rockford Peaches on Halloween.

Tom Hanks’s indelible portrayal of coach Jimmy Dugan, Gary Marshall’s depiction of (fictional) league owner Walter Harvey and Jon Lovitz’s portrayal of Ernie have also become part of film history.

Filming “A League of Their Own,” Carlson vividly makes clear, was a gargantuan effort.  There were “actresses who can’t play baseball” and “baseball players who can’t act,” Penny Marshall said.

The stadium in Evansville, Ind., was rebuilt to look like it was in the 1940s “when the players and extras were in costume,” Carlson writes, “it was easy to lose track of what year it was.”

“No Crying in Baseball” isn’t written for a queer audience. But, Carlson doesn’t pull any punches. 

Many of the real-life AAGPBL players who O’Donnell met had same-sex partners, O’Donnell told Carlson.

“When Penny, angling for a broad box-office hit chose to ignore the AAGPGL’s queer history,” Carlson writes, “she perpetuated a cycle of silence that muzzled athletes and actresses alike from coming out on the wider stage.”

“It was, as they say, a different time,” she adds.

Fortunately, Carlson’s book isn’t preachy. Marshall nicknames O’Donnell and Madonna (who become buddies) “Ro” and “Mo.” Kodak is so grateful for the one million feet of film that Marshall shot that it brings in a high school marching band. Along with a lobster lunch. One day, an assistant director “streaked the set to lighten the mood,” Carlson writes.

“No Crying in Baseball,” is slow-going at first. Marshall, who died in 2018, became famous as Laverne in “Laverne & Shirley.” It’s interesting to read about her. But Carlson devotes so much time to Marshall’s bio that you wonder when she’ll get to “A League of Their Own.”

Thankfully, after a couple of innings, the intriguing story of one of the best movies ever is told.

You’ll turn the pages of “No Crying in Baseball” even if you don’t know a center fielder from a short stop.

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Rupert Murdoch’s powers on full display in ‘Ink’

Media baron helped pave the way for Brexit, Prime Minister Thatcher



Cody Nickell (Larry Lamb) and Andrew Rein (Rupert Murdoch) in ‘Ink’ at Round House Theatre. (Photo by Margot Schulman Photography)

Through Sept. 24
Round House Theatre
4545 East-West Highway, Bethesda, MD 20814

Yes, Rupert Murdoch’s loathsome traits are many, but his skills to succeed are undeniably numerous. 

In the first scenes of John Graham’s West End and Broadway hit drama “Ink,” an exciting year-long detail from the life of a burgeoning media baron, Murdoch’s powers of persuasion are on full display.

It’s 1969 London. Over dinner with editor Larry Lamb, a young Murdoch shares his plan to buy the Sun and rebrand the dying broadsheet, replacing the Daily Mirror as Britain’s best-selling tabloid. What’s more, he wants to do it in just one year with Lamb at the helm. 

Initially reluctant, Lamb becomes seduced by the idea of running a paper, something that’s always eluded him throughout his career, and something Murdoch, the outsider Australian, understands. Murdoch taunts him, “Not you. Not Larry Lamb, the Yorkshire-born son of a blacksmith, not the guy who didn’t get a degree from Oxford or Cambridge, who didn’t get a degree from anywhere. Not you.”

Still, Lamb, played convincingly by Cody Nickell in Round House Theatre’s stellar season-opener, a co-production with Olney Theatre Center, remains unsure. But Murdoch (a delightfully brash Andrew Rein) is undeterred, and seals the deal with a generous salary. 

Superbly staged by director Jason Loweth, “Ink” is riveting. Its exchanges between Lamb and Murdoch are a strikingly intimate glimpse into ambition involving an ostensibly average editor and a striving money man who doesn’t like people.  

Once on board, Lamb is trolling Fleet Street in search of his launch team, played marvelously by some mostly familiar actors. He makes his most important hire — news editor Brian McConnell (Maboud Ebrahimzadeh) — in a steam bath. The remainder of the Sun’s new masthead falls handily into place: Joyce Hopkirk (Kate Eastwood Norris) the women’s page editor whose forward thinking is marred by her casual racism; Zion Jang plays Beverley Goodway, an awkwardly amusing young photographer; persnickety deputy editor Bernard Shrimsley (Michael Glenn) who learns to love ugly things; and an old school sports editor who proves surprisingly versatile, played by Ryan Rillette, Round House’s artistic director. 

At Lamb’s suggestion, the team brainstorms about what interests Sun readers. They decide on celebrities, pets, sports, free stuff, and —rather revolutionarily for the time —TV.  Murdoch is happy to let readers’ taste dictate content and the “Why” of the sacred “five Ws” of journalism is out the window. 

Murdoch is portrayed as a not wholly unlikable misanthrope. He dislikes his editors and pressman alike. He particularly hates unions. His advice to Lamb is not to get too chummy with his subordinates. Regarding the competition, Murdoch doesn’t just want to outperform them, he wants to grind them to dust. 

Loewith leads an inspired design team. Scenic designer Tony Cisek’s imposing, inky grey edifice made from modular walls is ideally suited for Mike Tutaj’s projections of headlines, printed pages, and Rein’s outsized face as Murdoch. Sound designer and composer Matthew M. Nielson ably supplies bar noises and the nonstop, pre-digital newspaper clatter of presses, linotypes, and typewriters.

From a convenient second tiered balcony, the Daily Mirror’s establishment power trio Hugh Cudlipp (Craig Wallace), Chris Lee Howard (Chris Geneback) and Sir Percy (Walter Riddle) overlook all that lies below, discussing new tactics and (mostly failed) strategies to remain on top.   

Increasingly comfortable in the role of ruthless, sleazy editor, Lamb is unstoppable.

Obsessed with overtaking the Daily Mirror’s circulation, he opts for some sketchy reportage surrounding the kidnapping and presumed murder of Muriel McKay, the wife of Murdoch’s deputy Sir Alick (Todd Scofield). The kidnappers mistook Muriel for Murdoch’s then-wife Anna (Sophia Early). Next, in a move beyond the pale, Lamb introduces “Page 3,” a feature spotlighting a topless female model. Awesta Zarif plays Stephanie, a smart young model. She asks Lamb if he would run a semi-nude pic of his similarly aged daughter? His reaction is uncomfortable but undaunted. 

For Murdoch’s purposes, history proves he chose well in Lamb. By year’s end, the Sun is Britain’s most widely read tabloid. Together they give the people what they didn’t know they wanted, proving the pro-Labour Daily Mirror’s hold on the working class is baseless and paving the way for things like Brexit and a Prime Minister Thatcher. 

“Ink” at Round House closes soon. See it if you can.

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