Critical Confabulations

a theatre, film & pop culture review

Theatre Review: The Normal Heart

Health is a political issue. Everyone’s entitled to good medical care. If you’re not getting it, you’ve got to fight for it.  — Emma, The Normal Heart

If you think we’re winning the fight against AIDS, if you think we’ve come so far, that we’ve overcome so much since the first recorded cases of the disease in the early ’80s —

See The Normal Heart on Broadway.

If you think a story about ignorance and fear and denial couldn’t read as anything but a history piece —

See The Normal Heart on Broadway.

If you think it’s just about AIDS; about a very specific group of people, read Emma’s words above and then —

See The Normal Heart on Broadway.

If, less than a week ago, you had veered west off Broadway and traveled a few avenues down 42nd Street, you would have come across what many have hailed the finest drama of our time — the epic, lyrical, political, timeless account of a period and a people afflicted by a horrific plague. And while today, as they did twenty years ago, critics raved about and rallied around Angels in America, the masterpiece did not hold up so extraordinarily well in director Michael Greif’s busy, overly-designed Signature Theatre production. You would have walked away from that production not reveling in Kushner’s poetry, nor the heartbreaking agony of friends, lovers, families torn apart and broken down by the epidemic, but surprised — because you hadn’t really noticed before thanks to the gorgeous imagery and all the big ideas — that the play so heavily relies on the political climate of the 1980s.

The Normal Heart, with its bracing denunciation of the government and the society that lead to AIDS, that worldwide plague, should have been the preachy piece of period theatre that, today, is more exasperating than moving. After all, we’re talking about a play by Larry Kramer — that controversial, pigheaded, loudmouthed playwright who made an enemy of Tony Kushner because Kushner wouldn’t write Abe Lincoln as gay in a screenplay (and this is after he wrote an admiring, insightful introduction for the publication of The Normal Heart). But this is also the same impassioned, fiercely driven Larry Kramer who changed the course of AIDS, co-founding Gay Men’s Health Crisis in 1982 and ACT UP in 1987, two organizations that were largely responsible for the creation of drugs that make it possible for millions of HIV-positive people to live relatively normal lives.

So which Larry Kramer is represented on Broadway today?

The answer, of course, is both when you have George C. Wolfe helming the production (Joel Grey, who originated the role of Ned Weeks in the off-Broadway premiere at the Public Theater, and who is currently tap-dancing his way across the deck of the S.S. American in Anything Goes, “co-directs” here — but this production has Wolfe written all over it). Equal parts hostility and heart, Wolfe’s minimalist production does what Grief’s Angels should have — focuses on the content, not the context: designer David Rockwell’s spare white walls covered from top-to-bottom in white words like gay, AIDS, illness –only really readable when lit from behind — help highlight quotes and statistics in an underutilized technique. Batwin + Robin Productions, Inc.‘s projections of victims’ names against the walls (another underemployed technique), grow in number, spreading outward onto the auditorium walls as time passes; if only they could extend throughout the entire theatre, into the mezzanine, onto the ceiling, onto the audience, spilling out onto 45th Street — really capturing the staggering numbers of those who passed –what a startling, overwhelming effect that would have had.

Joe Mantello and John Benjamin Hickey. Photo by Joan Marcus.

But the context is just a supportive shell for the facts, the words, the people. And Kramer’s loosely autobiographical, furious call-to-arms is gloriously performed. Rarely is such a tremendous ensemble assembled, but here, to tell the story of a city in denial over an implicit epidemic, Wolfe pulls together Ellen Barkin (who is a bit too rough-around-the-edges); Mark Harelik as the brusque lawyer who can’t quite accept his gay brother, no matter how much he loves him; the lovably sweet Jim Parsons as Tommy, maintaining a calm optimism even at the darkest of moments; an open-hearted, searching John Benjamin Hickey as Felix, the sensitive New York Times fashion writer who deteriorates before our eyes in devastating progression; Lee Pace as the conflicted, playing-it-straight businessman who brings the house to tears as, broken, he describes watching his lover die and then thrown into a back alley by an orderly fearful of catching the disease.

But the astounding stand-out is Joe Mantello as Ned Weeks, the demanding, determined, obnoxious writer who fights, hard, to make the city, the governor, his own brother, hear and believe him regarding the deadly temerity of the unnamed disease. Carelessly dressed in a worn, grey cardigan hanging loosely about his small frame, a harried Mantello constantly fidgets, running his fingers through his hair, his mind clearly racing even more quickly than his mouth is speaking. Unsure of his body and unaware of the unnerving palpability of his own excitement and big ideas, his Ned suddenly hovers too close, and then pulls back just as quickly. He has no concept of personal space; he does not believe in even the iota of a possibility of an opinion besides his own; he is fiercely intelligent, abrasively driven, and heartbreakingly dedicated to his dying lover. He is Larry Kramer’s stand-in, and Mantello offers a vigorous, vivid, and strikingly honest portrayal that should, no doubt, earn him a Tony Award nomination.

The Normal Heart is far from perfect: too-long monologues ceaselessly preach to us the history of AIDS; characters test our empathy, arguing over victim statistics and death tolls and disease details. But like a good docudrama, it’s the facts, not the drama, that are, and must be, center stage. Larry Kramer desperately wanted you to know, and still needs you to know; George Wolfe and his stellar cast will help you to know, but please go, and please know that everything in The Normal Heart happened. 

Lee Pace, Ellen Barkin, Wayne Alan Wilcox, Patrick Breen, Jim Parsons, Joe Mantello, John Benjamin Hickey, Luke Macfarlane, Richard Topol and Mark Harelik. Photo by Joan Marcus.

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This entry was posted on April 27, 2011 by in Broadway, Reviews, Theatre, Theatre Reviews.

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