When Larry Kramer’s THE NORMAL HEART debuted at the Public Theater in 1985, his powerful autobiographical play about the early days of the AIDS crisis was looked upon as a wake-up call. The epidemic was in full swing, and we knew almost nothing about the course the disease would take or how to care for the victims. There was mass hysteria in the gay community and an urgent need for our government to take action. The intensity of rage in Kramer’s drama was the dawning of a new era in gay activism.
The revival on Broadway at the John Golden Theater produced by Daryl Roth is simply astonishing. Here is unflinching theater that is not afraid to be passionate, bold and raw. Impeccably helmed by Joel Grey and George C. Wolfe with a clarity of vision that is both remarkable and profoundly moving. Beautifully performed by an outstanding ensemble led brilliantly by Joe Mantello with a stunning assist from John Benjamin Hickey, the evening is a dramatic tour de force that remains pungent and urgent.
The changing face of the AIDS crisis makes room for the play’s other issues concerning family, gay self esteem, Jews and government bigotry, to come into better focus. Kramer’s questions reach beyond just the disease and the extraordinary cast of actors brings the complexities to heart pounding life with searing accuracy.
Mantello, a Tony Award winning director, who has put his acting career on hold, plays a successful Journalist Ned Weeks, a stand in for Kramer, who propels himself into the center of the controversy with his unrelenting attempts to get New York’s gay community, the media, and the government to pay attention to the mysterious disease that is suddenly killing gay men. Back then the disease was called the Gay Cancer.
The first Act focuses on how Ned and a small group of gay men organized themselves to fight the disease and form the Gay Men’s Health Crisis. What makes Mantello’s performance so exceedingly poignant is the struggle he plays to curtail the rage that ultimately consumes him in the face the overwhelming odds and frustrating truths he is confronted with. His Weeks, an intelligent driven man, is done in by his own neurosis and insecurities while attempting to control them.
The second Act shifts to Ned’s dismissal from the group he founded because of his in your face attacks on the establishment, and his relationship with the only man able to break down his walls, the New York Times writer Felix Turner, magnificently inhabited by Hickey. His harrowing portrayal of Ned’s lover, who comes down with the illness accelerating Ned’s rage, is a sure bet to take home the gold at this season’s award ceremonies. Hickey’s transformation from a handsome confident reporter into a shell of a man ravaged by the disease is the heart of the play, and he embodies the role with unflinching honesty.
The impressive ensemble is sure to be lauded at The Drama Desk Awards in the best ensemble category, as rarely do you see a group of actors inhabit their parts with such nuanced authority. Both Jim Parsons (CBS’s “The Big Bang Theory") and Lee Pace (ABC’s “Pushing Daisies”) are particularly affective in fleshing out their roles beyond mere stereotypes of a Southern bitch and a closeted businessman, respectively. As a pioneering AIDS doctor, Ellen Barkin practically stops the show with an angry rant attacking the non-existent response from the government.
On leaving the theater a young man was distributing a letter from the playwright Larry Kramer that said, “Please know that everything in THE NORMAL HEART happened. These were and are real people who lived and spoke and died…Please know that the world has suffered….some 75 million infections and 35 million deaths. When the action of the play…begins, there were 41.
By: Patrick Christiano
THE NORMAL HEART opened April 27th 2011 on Broadway at the John Golden Theatre, 252 West 45th Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenues for a limited run through July 10, 2011. For tickets call 212-239-6200 or thenormalheartbroadway.com.
Photos: Joan Marcus