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Two Plays: Not New, Definitely Improved

This month sees two eagerly awaited plays—one an AIDS-era political screed, the other a comedy set in present-day China —coming to the Bay Area after winning raves on Broadway. One is unexpectedly timely; the other isn’t anymore. In both cases, the change in context is thrilling.

The Normal Heart

Author: Gay Icon Larry Kramer

First Produced: Public Theater, New York City, 1985

Then: a polemic that excoriated much of New York’s gay, medical, and political establishment for failing to act—or act up—in the early days of the AIDS crisis.

Hero: Ned Weeks, a self- portrait of activist Kramer at his pain-in-the-ass best/worst.

Villain(s): pretty much everyone else, but especially then–NYC mayor Ed Koch, a homophobic New York Times, and a gay culture unable or unwilling to grasp the magnitude of the tragedy engulfing it.

Now: ancient history, at least for younger gay men. During the NYC run, Kramer passed out flyers reminding theatergoers that this holocaust really happened. Better this time: no longer ripped from the headlines, the play now seems “as delicate as it is ferocious,” says director George C. Wolfe. “Larry told me, ‘I had no idea I’d written a love story.’”

Sept. 13 –Oct. 7, act-SF.org

Chinglish

Author: Gaysian icon David Henry Hwang

First produced: Goodman Theater, Chicago, 2011

Then: a culture-clash comedy of errors, linguistic and otherwise, “that tries to measure the murky distance between two mutually uncomprehending societies” (NYT).

Hero: a well-meaning sign salesman from cleveland with a past.

Villain(s): hard to say, which is kind of the point. Now: a prescient farce that eerily tracks the Bo Xilai scandal, complete with corrupt government officials, a scheming high-powered wife, and a bumbling british business consultant who has no idea what he’s gotten into. “We like to say David is clairvoyant,” director Leigh Silverman laughs. Better this time: the news from China raises the stakes while adding surprising emotional depth. Just imagine the reaction in Hong Kong, where the Berkeley Rep production is headed next March.

Aug. 24–Oct. 7, berkeleyrep.org