Wednesday, May 4, 2011

On Broadway: Raging 'Heart'

Mantello and Hickey in The Normal Heart (photo by Joan Marcus)

The Normal Heart

Written by Larry Kramer
Starring John Benjamin Hickey, Joe Mantello, Ellen Barkin, Lee Pace, Jim Parsons, Patrick Breen, Luke Macfarlane, Mark Harelik, Richard Topol
Directed by Joel Grey and George C. Wolfe

Performances through July 10, 2011
Golden Theatre, 252 West 45th Street

Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart, which premiered in 1985 (two years before President Reagan even said the word “AIDS”), has still-timely rage in every single line as it decries the various states of denial leading to the disease spreading so quickly and lethally.

The play’s nominal hero is Ned Weeks, a tireless if gratingly obnoxious advocate for gay rights, who tries to get the attention of the New York mayor (nameless, but obviously Ed Koch) and the local homosexual community in his effort to combat a new, fatal disease targeting gay men. Strident, standoffish and difficult to like or appreciate, Ned founds a new gay organization (based on Gay Men’s Health Crisis), remains distant from his straight lawyer brother, and falls in love with Felix Turner, a closeted New York Times fashion editor who soon comes down the disease.

By presenting Ned’s personal and professional strife in the context of the beginnings of a disease still killing people 30 years later, The Normal Heart personalizes a tragic true story that, unfortunately, so far needs re-telling. Kramer, always the provocateur, doesn’t mince words or pull punches when aiming at the willful ignorance of his fellow advocates, who cringe at the idea of telling other gay men that they can no longer have unprotected sex (or any sex at all, for that matter), or the institutionalized homophobia of The New York Times, which mentioned Legionnaire’s Disease and the Tylenol scare more often than AIDS in the disease’s early years.

Kramer also unflinchingly takes on the government and medical establishment, which treated the crisis with kid gloves until it was too late. In the character of polio-stricken, wheelchair-bound Dr. Emma Brookner, Kramer shows how desperately futile the fight was for individual doctors without any support from the Centers for Disease Control.

Even if Ned is a thinly-veiled autobiographical character, Kramer doesn’t put himself on a pedestal. Although fighting the good fight against insurmountable odds from within (fellow gays) and without (everybody else), Ned is also a shrill, shameless self-promoter unable to connect emotionally with anyone—at least until he meets Felix, which makes him even more inconsolable when his lover is fatally stricken. It’s the dovetailing of the personal and the political that gives Kramer’s play its heartbreaking power, its few instances of dated dialogue or shrill speechifying aside.

David Rockwell’s impressively minimalist set consists of white walls on which are inscribed quotes and factoids from the disease’s history, and occasionally—and all the more effectively for it—are projected the names of the victims as the play progresses, until the intensely moving finale when the walls of the theater are filled with scores of names. David Weiner’s lighting, David van Tieghem’s music and Martin Pakledinaz’s costumes persuasively give these events a specific time and place while remaining timeless.

Joel Grey and George C. Wolfe’s understated direction, which states Kramer’s case starkly and straightforwardly, shrewdly uses the production’s nine actors to haunt the later scenes when they‘re not performing, as they sit and watch the increasingly emotional proceedings with the audience.

The redoubtable acting begins with Jim Parsons, Lee Pace, Patrick Breen, Mark Harelik, Luke Macfarlane, Richard Topol and Wayne Alan Wilcox, all of whom invest pivotal supporting roles with vivid humaneness. Barking her lines, Ellen Barkin gives weight to the life-or-death pronouncements of Dr. Brookner, whose big scene—her excoriation of the CDC for playing politics—receives a prolonged ovation that’s been all too rare in my decades of play-going.

John Benjamin Hickey’s Felix is a beautifully shaded portrait of enormous warmth and empathy, and Felix’s wasting away from AIDS is magically pulled off by the actor without any obvious makeup or stage tricks: Hickey shows us the sad frailty of a dying man with a big heart. The superb Ned is Joe Mantello, a former actor who’s been collecting awards as a director for 15 years: he might not grab us by the throat as Raul Esparza so memorably did in the 2004 Public Theater revival, but he does something equally valuable, making Ned more sympathetic by being less forceful and more physically fragile.

Mantello’s devastating performance is the beating heart of The Normal Heart.

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