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  • Writer's pictureAnthony Chase

Fauci and Kramer, or Clash of the Titans

Review by Anthony Chase


A man sitting in a chair and another man standing behind him
Steve Jakiel as Dr. Anthony Fauci, is haunted by Larry Kramer, played by Louis Colaiacovo

When the global coronavirus pandemic began to dominate the headlines in 2020, many of us who had lived through the AIDS crisis, experienced a feeling of déjà vu. There was something alarmingly familiar about seeing thousands die of an infectious disease while a rightwing president failed to react decisively.

 

Playwright Drew Fornarola was quick to notice another historical repetition. As the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases since 1984, Dr. Anthony Fauci, who began to appear on television daily, had also been at the forefront of the nation’s response to the AIDS crisis forty years before. Fornarola began to write a play about it.

 

The result is Fauci and Kramer, which opened this past week at the Canterbury Woods Performing Arts Center, produced by First Look Buffalo Theatre Company. 

 

Fornarola did not have difficulty finding an antagonist for his story. During the 1980s and ‘90s, playwright and activist Larry Kramer was the single-most outspoken critic of the failure of government, health care organizations, and the gay community to respond to AIDS. A great deal of his ire was directed at Anthony Fauci, personally.

 

The play begins in May 2020, two months into the COVID-19 shutdown, and one day after the death of Larry Kramer.  At this point, 2,000 Americans are dying of covid every day. We find ourselves in Fauci’s office, where the famed doctor is trying to get some much-needed sleep. His effort is disrupted, however, when the ever-disruptive Larry Kramer appears to him as a ghost.  Even in death, Kramer can’t let things go.

 

Steve Jakiel plays Fauci. Louis Colaiacovo plays Kramer.

 

Fornarola taps into the vivid personalities of these two iconic men to imagine a dialogue in which the combatants energetically challenge each other's approaches to a public health crisis. Jakiel and Colaiacovo are compelling in the roles. Jakiel plays Fauci as a man with steadfast but methodical dedication and intellect. Colaiacovo portrays Kramer with fiery passion and uncompromising conviction. 

 

Neither seeks to impersonate the real-life individuals. Instead, they dig into the substance of their differences. As Kramer, Colaiacovo oscillates between mischievous wit and searing animosity. Jakiel studiedly maintains his cool in the face of the harshest criticism, and even insult, as he doggedly pursues practical solutions. He occasionally parries Kramer’s attacks with playful assaults of his own. In his solitary moments, he questions his own methods and priorities. He never wavers.

 

The production, directed by Kate Powers, maintains a swift pace, building momentum and emotion as the arguments gain complexity. She encourages the individuality of the actors playing the roles, even adding a comical bit of stage business to emphasize the contrast between Jakiel’s towering height and the size of the diminutive real-life Anthony Fauci.

 

The storytelling is augmented by enormously entertaining projection and sound design by Hannah S. Wolland, which pulls heavily on documentary news footage. A sequence in which we see a succession of Donald Trump’s most outrageous remarks about the COVID-19 pandemic is particularly notable for evoking both discomfort and hilarity. 

 

Evoking opposite emotions simultaneously would seem to be at the heart of Fornarola’s world view.  This was a central element of his play, Straight, written with Scott Elmegreen, in which audience reaction was often at total odds with the actions of his characters.  On this occasion, Fornarola’s ability to infuse moments of humor into painfully weighty subject matter also distinguishes the work.

 

The personal stakes here prevent us from ever feeling that we are at a lecture disguised as a play.  At every turn, the personalities of the two men and the relationship that bonds them, despite palpable differences, is at the forefront. 

 

As the dialogue unfolds, we come to understand the evolution of Fauci and Kramer's relationship, from adversarial to collaborative. Despite their ideological differences, they share a common goal. Still, they drive each other crazy.

 

Dr. Fauci’s efforts to navigate the complexities of the AIDS crisis while balancing political realities and scientific uncertainty were notoriously slow and opaque. This is unendurably frustrating to Kramer. 

 

More than any other individual, Kramer was responsible for shining a spotlight on the AIDS issue, but his confrontational and sometimes outrageous tactics also earned him a reputation as a madman. His antics and outbursts drove even his closest friends away from him. Fauci would dearly like Kramer to understand that being right is useless if you can’t convince others. This is an insurmountable impasse.

 

I had attended a reading of the play while it was in development and was concerned that with the pandemic behind us, Fauci and Kramer might have missed its moment.  Not so.  With a contentious national election looming this November, the story of Fauci and Kramer resonates with renewed relevance, urgency, and power. More than the story of any specific pandemic, through this artful, energetic, and entirely engaging dialogue, Fornarola reveals how the commitment to the public good shared by two remarkably dissimilar men might transcend their personal animosities, leading to moments of genuine camaraderie, understanding, and even affection.

 

Fauci and Kramer continues through March 17, 2024. Fridays and Saturdays 8pm, Sundays 2pm., Canterbury Woods Performing Arts Center

705 Renaissance Dr., in Williamsville





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