Friday, May 27, 2011

THE NORMAL HEART • Golden Theatre

This powerful 1985 off-Broadway play about the early days of the HIV-AIDS epidemic in NYC is receiving a striking Broadway revival at the Golden Theatre.  THE NORMAL HEART follows a group of men who form an organization in an effort to bring attention to this baffling disease that is rapidly claiming the lives of gay men.  The group's leader and main agitator is Ned Weeks (based on the playwright, Larry Kramer), an outspoken writer whose in-your-face tactics often rubbed others the wrong way, but were necessary during this time when many even in the gay community were pretty ambivalent about what was happening.

It's explosive, contentious, urgent and the weight of it makes your heart race.  The stark set was the first thing that stood out to me.  At first glance, it looks like plain white bricks, but upon closer inspection you can see embossed phrases like, "How come nobody is paying any attention to 'it'", "Everything, everything is too little too late", and "blood transfusions".  Joel Grey & George C. Wolfe's direction does try to make the most of the welcome humor in the show, but for the most part, it's pretty grueling.

Ellen Barkin (Dr. Emma Brookner)
and Joe Mantello (Ned Weeks)
Photo credit: Sara Krulwich/The New York Times
The play begins outside the waiting room of Dr. Emma Brookner (an amazing Ellen Barkin).  This paraplegic physician has been treating gay men for a disease that no one has a name for yet, but it leaves these men with no immune system, and her cases are multiplying daily.  One of her patients leaves her office saying that he's case number 28.  And that 16 of them are dead.  Emma is frustrated and angry about the lack of attention this outbreak is getting from the media, Mayor Ed Koch, the medical profession as well as the gay population.  She finds an ally when she meets Ned Weeks (a piercing Joe Mantello), whom she pleads with to use his influence and try to get the point across in the community that until more is understood about the disease, men needed to stop having sex.  Although this "solution" seems pretty unrealistic to Ned, he gets together a group of friends, several very different individuals, and forms an organization to try to raise money and make a political impact by shining a light on this epidemic.  Problem is, many of these members are closeted, and can't afford to be in the spotlight, and Ned's often abrasive strategy eventually alienates him from the group he began.  It might be hard to like Ned if it weren't for his passionate desire to effect change, and the more endearing insecurities that he reveals in scenes with his partner, Felix Turner (John Benjamin Hickey), a closeted style writer for the New York Times.
Photo credit: Joan Marcus
Joe Mantello hasn't been on the stage since 1994, but he brings the perfect amount of rage and nervous energy to Ned.  Hard to imagine anyone else in that role.  Ellen Barkin was remarkable in her Broadway debut.  Her intensity is just under the surface the whole time, but she has a key scene where she furiously erupts at a government doctor that elicited an almost involuntary sustained applause from the audience.  Mark Harelik as Ben Weeks shows a sincere compassion and love for his brother, even though that love is conditional.  John Benjamin Hickey's Felix is charming and believable as Ned's partner, and once he finds out he has contracted the disease, watching his decline is devastating.  Jim Parsons as "Southern bitch" Tommy, provides some gladly received comic relief.  He's a younger member of the organization but often the voice of reason when the infighting begins.  Lee Pace as the handsome Bruce Niles does a nice job brimming with conflict as a devoted advocate, but a closeted banker.  Patrick Breen's Mickey, a city health employee and a staunch defender of sexual promiscuity, has some heated exchanges with Ned and together, all of these characters nicely represent the spectrum of opinions about the AIDS crisis within the gay community.  Not one weak link in this ensemble.  The faces of ALL of them at the curtain call -- stunning.  There were no smiles.  It looked like they had all just had the shit kicked out of them.  
Photo credit: Sara Krulwich/The New York Times
David Weiner's dramatic lighting along with David Van Tieghem's pulse-pounding music between scenes made a frightening impact, and the projections (Batwin + Robin Productions) of the ever increasing numbers of those who have been lost were staggering by the end of the play.  Letters are passed out afterwards to the audience, written by Kramer, that lay out in astounding numbers the toll this disease is still taking around the world, and how efforts to fight it are still too little too late.  This play may leave you shattered, but if it moves people to act, and remember things that shouldn't be forgotten, that's a good thing.


Written by Larry Kramer
Directed by Joel Grey & George C. Wolfe
Golden Theater, 252 West 45th St. New York, NY
through July 10 | tickets: $26.50 - $116.50 
Performances Tuesdays & Sundays at 7pm, Wednesday to Saturday at 8pm, Saturdays & Sundays at 2pm

Ellen Barkin (Dr. Emma Brookner), Patrick Breen (Mickey Marcus), Mark Harelik (Ben Weeks), John Benjamin Hickey (Felix Turner), Luke MacFarlane (Craig Donner/Grady), Joe Mantello (Ned Weeks), Lee Pace (Bruce Niles), Jim Parsons (Tommy Boatwright), Richard Topol (Hiram Keebler/Examining Doctor) and Wayne Alan Wilcox (David).

Scenic design by David Rockwell; costumes by Martin Pakledinaz; lighting by David Weiner; projections by Batwin + Robin Productions; music and sound by David Van Tieghem; technical supervisor, Peter Fulbright; production stage manager, Karen Armstrong.

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