By Elizabeth Maupin
Elizabeth Maupin on Theater
When reports of the horrors of AIDS first reached the Orlando Sentinel, in the early and mid-1980s, no reporter in the newsroom was assigned to cover the story. It took the newspaper’s dance critic, who was already hearing indications of how the epidemic would hit close to home, to persuade editors that this was a story that had to be heard.
I repeat this tale not because the Sentinel acted foolishly: So many news organizations did back then (and so many still do). I tell it because what happened in Orlando jibes so completely with the story that Larry Kramer tells in The Normal Heart – a story about people dying horrific deaths and other people paying no heed.
In the first Broadway production of Kramer’s play, 26 years after it premiered at New York’s Public Theater, directors Joel Grey and George C. Wolfe have made this grueling drama come across as viscerally as it must have done in 1985. There have been other terrific productions of The Normal Heart (notably one with Raύl Esparza, at the Public Theater again, in 2004). But this Broadway staging, which features Joe Mantello in the central role of Ned Weeks, gets at the essentials of the play – avoiding turning all of Kramer’s rants and statistics into a 2½-hour harangue, capturing the heart of the characters’ passions. It’s no surprise that, all around me, middle-aged men and women were weeping openly at the end.
Blaring disco music sets the scene – 1981, at the play’s start – when men in New York are beginning to die from an unknown plague. Hospitals aren’t paying attention: “Who cares if a faggot dies?,” Dr. Emma Brookner (Ellen Barkin) asks cynically. Neither is the city of New York, despite the efforts of writer-turned-activist Ned Weeks, whose abrasive style wins him more enemies, at City Hall and elsewhere, than friends.
Mantello’s Ned is key to the success of this production: He’s so funny, so offhand and neurotic that you take him to heart long before the character gets really annoying. It’s fascinating to see Mantello play this role after having seen him as Louis in Angels in America: It’s the same kind of part, but the actor’s warmth takes him farther here because Ned, unlike Louis, is working solely for good.
The rest of the cast is moving, as well – a forthright, down-to-earth John Benjamin Hickey (Love! Valour! Compassion!) as Ned’s lover Felix Turner; an almost unrecognizable Barkin (no glamour here) as the plain-spoken doctor; a warm Mark Harelik (The Light in the Piazza) as Ned’s brother Ben, struggling to understand; Patrick Breen as Mickey Marcus, a tormented man whose job is at stake if he continues to protest; and Jim Parsons as the very funny Tommy Boatwright, an acerbic Southerner who manages to pull Ned and his comrades together even when they are miles apart. Lee Pace at first seems more Marlboro Man than activist as Bruce Niles, the head of the organization that Ned founds. But he turns all too human in a horrifying monologue describing the death of a lover whose body neither the hospital nor the police will touch.
Kramer famously has been passing out fliers outside the doors of the Golden Theater after the show, telling audience members not only that everything in this play really happened but that most of it happens still. Thirty-five million people have died of AIDS, he says; that number isn’t far off from more official reports. That Kramer inspires theatergoers to action is a very good thing; that his play also works so powerfully as theater is nothing short of amazing.
‘The Normal Heart’
By Larry Kramer
Where: Golden Theatre, 252 W. 45th St., New York City.
When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays, 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays (through July 10).
Running time: Two hours 35 minutes, with one intermission.