Back in 1985, this “watershed drama” by the AIDS activist Larry Kramer “sounded like a hoarse, relentless ‘J’accuse,’” said Ben Brantley in The New York Times. Its anger helped make it a long-running hit: As victims of what was first called “gay cancer” began dying by the thousands, Kramer’s fiery denunciation of America’s complacent response to the epidemic offered catharsis for people angry with those who could have been helping. Yet its first Broadway incarnation, directed by Joel Grey and George C. Wolfe and nominated for multiple Tonys, makes clear that Kramer is “truly a playwright as well as a pamphleteer.” For although his semiautobiographical story still thunders with political outrage, “what emerges so stirringly from this production is its empathy with people lost in a war in which they have no rules, no map, no weapons.”
It also becomes apparent that “Larry Kramer was right. About everything,” said Jesse Oxfeld in The New York Observer. Kramer’s alter ego, Ned Weeks (Joe Mantello), realizes almost immediately that the new illness represents an existential threat to the gay community, and he forms a group, with crusading doctor Emma Brookner (Ellen Barkin), to spread the word. In hindsight, “it’s easy to see the flaws” in Kramer’s “self-mythologizing script.” Its “most affecting passages are not dramatic developments but declaimed soliloquies.” But most of those speeches, including one by a man describing how his just-deceased partner was treated by terrified hospital workers, are “wrenching and heartbreaking.”
Mantello makes Weeks “impossible to ignore,” said Jeremy Gerard in Bloomberg.com. His “bravura” performance helps us see that all of Weeks’s anger springs from “a nightmarish fact: All of his friends are dying or dead.” Yet for all of the show’s noise and heat, one of its most moving elements transpires silently. “Over the course of the evening,” the walls of the set become crowded with the projected names of the dead,” until there are too many to fit. At this point, “the entire Golden Theatre becomes a sob-inducing memorial,” both for victims of the past and for those dying today of a disease that still knows no cure.