The Normal Heart: Theater Review

Jim Parsons and Lee Pace in "The Normal Heart"
A living memorial staged with stinging clarity and invigorating emotional power.

Joel Grey and George C. Wolfe co-direct Larry Kramer's play about AIDS, with an ensemble that includes Joe Mantello, John Benjamin Hickey, Ellen Barkin, Lee Pace and Jim Parsons.

NEW YORK – Nothing ages faster onstage than agitprop. But in this shattering revival of Larry Kramer’s polemical howl of anger and despair, The Normal Heart, the 30 years since the first whispers of what became known as AIDS were heard and ignored evaporate in an instant.

The production began as an Actors Fund/Friends in Deed benefit last fall, which has been briskly repackaged for the 1985 autobiographical play’s first-ever Broadway presentation. Joel Grey directed the reading and is flanked here by George C. Wolfe. Their staging is both stripped-down and dramatically full-bodied; it has a scorching eloquence that admirably serves the rage and anguish of Kramer’s text.

The cast has just two holdovers from the earlier presentation: Joe Mantello, one of New York theater’s leading directors, makes a revelatory return to acting as Kramer’s stand-in, Ned Weeks, and John Benjamin Hickey (The Big C) plays Felix Turner, the New York Times style reporter who becomes Ned’s lover. Ellen Barkin makes a blazing Broadway debut as Dr. Emma Brookner, alongside names better known for their TV credits than stage experience: Luke Macfarlane (Brothers and Sisters), Lee Pace (Pushing Daisies) and Jim Parsons (The Big Bang Theory).

But marquee value is not the point here; this is a spectacularly well-cast production in which every role has found its ideal interpreter. The play was given a strong revival at the Public Theater in 2004, so the wisdom of such a swift return seemed questionable. Yet somehow, its trenchancy and impassioned urgency reach out and grab you by the throat with the force of an explosive new work.

A time capsule of the birth and early evolution of the AIDS crisis, the drama follows a group of men who form an unnamed organization that represents Gay Men’s Health Crisis. Chief agitator and most outspoken of them is Ned, a writer bristling with nervous energy and the frustration of powerlessness as a growing number of his friends and acquaintances get sick and die.

Kramer’s writing has a fiery indignation that’s entirely persuasive, compensating for the play’s occasional tendency to treat its characters as mouthpieces and to overload on factoids and statistics. He builds gripping drama out of the battle to get past the indifference of the political, medical and media establishment.

Salient points also are made about the gay community’s initial ambivalence, especially when evidence first surfaced that the infection was sexually transmitted. That conflict emerges through searing exchanges between Ned and Mickey Marcus (Patrick Breen), an activist and city health commission employee who argues about the bitter irony of asking gay men to give up hard-won freedoms.

Infighting within the central advocacy group deftly underlines the split of opinions among gay men in those early days and the extent to which many were afraid to speak out and risk their jobs. Since Ned’s firebrand fervor tends to scare people off, Bruce Niles (Pace), a handsome banker and former Green Beret, is elected president, with acerbic Southerner Tommy Boatwright (Parsons) attempting to play peacekeeper.

The disintegration of Ned’s relationship with the group as Felix’s health rapidly declines gives the play a harrowing second act. At the performance reviewed, a series of wrenching monologues set off a chain reaction of sobbing throughout the theater. It’s hard to imagine even audiences not directly touched by those awful plague years being unmoved.

Mantello has not acted on a Broadway stage since Angels in America in 1994, and his raw performance is a bracing surprise. Ned is both maddening and empathetic, tormenting himself as much as everyone around him. His initial difficulty in letting down his defensiveness enough to be loved makes his early scenes with Hickey’s tremendously moving Felix funny and tender. Hickey seems to grow more skeletal before our eyes in a beautiful exchange with Ben Weeks (Mark Harelik), Ned’s lawyer brother, whose love and support come with conditions that cause a fraternal rift.

There’s a physical transformation in Barkin’s remarkable performance, too. Confined to a wheelchair since being hit with polio just months before a vaccine was developed, Emma’s own experience drives her tireless treatment and research work. Barkin draws her head into her shoulders, her body twisted and broken. Yet there’s nothing weak about this brittle woman; she’s no less uncompromising and confrontational than Ned. Her escalating fury during a federal funding interview is magnificent.

There is no weak link in the ensemble. As two characters that share a common cause but are divided in their views from Kramer/Ned, Breen and Pace have forceful moments, the former when pushed to breakdown point and the latter as he recounts a heart-crushing ordeal trying to deliver his dying lover to his family.

David Rockwell’s austere set pays tribute to the original production with a white-walled space that at first looks like painted brick until words pertaining to those early years are revealed in relief. David Weiner’s meticulous lighting and the economical use of projections to provide social context, identify location and list the names of the dead enhance the elegant simplicity of the presentation.

While AIDS treatments have progressed, largely relegating the walking skeletons of the 1980s to the past, a letter distributed by Kramer after performances serves as a reminder that the crisis continues. His play also touches on other contentious issues of gay marriage and healthcare that remain ongoing. This is tough, unflinching drama staged and performed by people with a fierce emotional investment in telling this story and keeping this painful history alive for generations inclined to forget.

A long-stalled film adaptation is finally in development, with Ryan Murphy slated to direct Mark Ruffalo as Ned. In the meantime, this production makes a stunning case for the play’s power and relevance.

Venue: Golden Theatre, New York (runs through July 10)
Cast: Ellen Barkin, Patrick Breen, Mark Harelik, John Benjamin Hickey, Luke Macfarlane, Joe Mantello, Lee Pace, Jim Parsons, Richard Topol, Wayne Alan Wilcox
Playwright: Larry Kramer
Directors: Joel Grey, George C. Wolfe
Set designer: David Rockwell
Costume designer: Martin Pakledinaz
Lighting designer: David Weiner
Music/sound designer: David Van Tieghem
Projection designer: Batwin & Robin Productions
Presented by Daryl Roth, Paul Boskind and Martian Entertainment, in association with Gregory Rae, Jayne Baron Sherman/Alexander Fraser