Tuesday, June 7, 2011

REVIEW: The Normal Heart

Review of the June 4 matinee performance at The John Golden Theatre on Broadway in New York City. 2 hours, 35 minutes, including one intermission. Starring Ellen Barkin, Patrick Breen, Mark Harelik, John Benjamin Hickey, Luke MacFarlane, Joe Mantello, Lee Pace, Jim Parsons, Richard Topol and Wayne Alan Wilcox. A play by Larry Kramer.  Directed by Joel Grey and George C. Wolfe.
Grade: A+

Sometimes, during the intermission of a play, my companion for the outing will turn to me and ask, "What is it about theatre that you love so much?"  My reply is generally always the same: "Because it is live, right in front of you, happening just as it is this one and only time and you are here witnessing it."  This generally leads to the standard what is your favorite show, etc., but usually ends with me saying, "Listen to the rest of the audience.  You will hear - and, rarely, not hear - the audience and the play connect when it is really, really good.  'Really, really good' will get a loud hand at the end of a scene.  'Excellent' will get sustained applause that includes 'bravos', whistles and general cheering.  But the 'truly extraordinary' will leave an audience so moved and awe struck that whole scenes go by with a deafening silence." I live for those shows that give me all three.  It is usually years between them - "truly extraordinary" is still a blessedly rare and life affirming occurrence.  And finally, after about two and half years, it happened again.  The theatre: The John Golden on Broadway.  The show: Larry Kramer's masterwork, The Normal Heart.
Indeed, last Saturday afternoon I was left truly numb to the touch, aching in my soul, and my brain abuzz with so much thought and emotion that I had trouble articulating where I wanted to have dinner, let alone to discuss what I had just seen.  And in the intervening days, that ache and buzz may have ebbed, but the occasional wave of emotion will hit me out of nowhere and the experience is all fresh again.
The Broadway Company of The Normal Heart

There are so many reasons why, as members of the human race, everyone needs to see this play, but not necessarily for the obvious ones.  Sure, the AIDS epidemic is still with us, and we need to be paying as much, if not more, attention to it now as when this play opened in the early to mid 80's.  It is a majestic tribute to the millions who have passed world-wide, unnoticed, uncared for, and long forgotten.  Sure, its themes of oppression, hypocrisy, community, activism and a dozen others resonate far beyond its subject matter, making it an important work to see.  And yes, superficially, really, this cast and this particular production are so beyond excellent they should become legendary along the lines of Laurette Taylor in The Glass Menagerie, Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire, or the original cast of A Chorus Line
But perhaps the most important reason to see this theatrical masterpiece is the fact that some 25 years later, its author felt compelled to write a letter to his audience declaring that, in fact, everything we had just seen was based entirely on fact, and that the problem is still with us, and that our complacency today is more dangerous than that initial fear-based ignoring of the epidemic; we know it exists and we still aren't demanding more from our government and our health departments, and we, as a community that reaches far beyond New York City and the gay community at large, aren't even taking enough responsibility to take personal precautions.  Indeed, I have spoken to many young gay men who think safe sex is a joke, that takes away from the pleasure of sex, and besides, "there are drugs now so you can live with it for a long time."  Scary and completely true.  The bottom line is that we need The Normal Heart.

In my reviews, I have often thrown around words like "tour-de-force," "brilliant," and "profound."  And all of these apply to The Normal Heart, but with one key difference: each term is meant in this case "to the infinite power."  Directed with care and perfectly parcelled out waves of emotion by Joel Grey and George C. Wolfe, the play never lapses into a shouting drone, which it very easily could.  Ned Weeks, its central character, is so impassioned and angry and desperate to be heard that he pretty nearly shouts everything to everyone.  And each of the other main characters has their moments of epic monologue, screaming above the din of complacency and the silence of apathy.  Yes, the entire play could easily be one very long, tedious shouting match, causing the audience to turn off.  Instead, Grey and Wolfe carefully plant moments of profundity which are quiet, often funny, and even silent, to balance out the performance.  These moments are aided literally and figuratively by austere scenic design of David Rockwell, the lighting design by David Weiner, and the projections by Batwin + Robin Productions.  Rockwell's set is a white box, with entrances and exits cut into the walls, but, unless left open, offer no exit or entrance when closed, effectually trapping its inhabitants inside, unable to escape.  At first glance, the walls appear to be plain white brick, until well into the first act where Weiner's lighting, aimed carefully straight down, reveals that they are not bricks, but rather three dimensional words - names, headlines, statistics - that, depending upon how each are lit can be read or blur back into the blankness.  There is a key and gut-wrenching change to the set in act two which I think is better left undisclosed so that when you see this production you will have the thrill of discovery that I did.
The cast of ten is the definition of "ensemble," and is the new standard against which I will compare for seasons to come.  It says so much that the two actors with the smallest roles can still move one to tears as both Wayne Alan Wilcox and Luke MacFarlane do, as young victims and activists against this disease, so new that the word AIDS is never uttered.  Richard Topol, amongst smaller bits, has the heavy task of being the bad guy twice.  First, he is Mayor Koch's assistant, a closeted man himself who righteously defends the official party line that there is no epidemic, claiming that no one is making enough noise to make it worth the bother.  Then he is the Examining Doctor, who shuts down the one doctor in New York willing to research the disease, after years of collecting data and not being seen by the CDC.  Topol's performance is riveting, and kudos must be given for his ability to take his punishment.  With both characters, one could feel the animosity, no, hatred for his characters hitting the stage from the audience.
Jim Parsons and Lee Pace

Jim Parsons, in a terrific Broadway debut, offers the lone bit of humor and often the only voice of realistic reason, in his heartwarming portrayal of Southern sissy Tommy Boatwright.  An apt name, it is his calm voice and quick witted charm that more than once keep this big ship of anger from sinking.  And there is the striking presence of Lee Pace, who exudes a manly sexiness and a disappointing lack of backbone (until it is almost too late) as Bruce Niles, a semi-closeted banking executive, who becomes, against his will, the leader of the newly formed Gay Men's Health Crisis.  His performance is marked by a progressively more intense presence as he at first tries to deal with the hand he is dealt, until he can't take any more brow beating, ridicule and hate from the very people he is trying to represent.  His act two monologue takes on the status quo, while he still wants to remain hidden in it, reaping the benefits of the gay sexual agenda without having to take responsibility for it.  But take responsibility he must, and he does.  It should be noted that both Mr. Parsons and Mr. Pace, making their Broadway debuts, are known primarily for their work in television.  Let this be the first step in quashing all of that "stunt casting"/"TV actors shouldn't do Broadway" chatter.  Both have added to this season with their presence.
Mark Harelik, who plays Ned Week's straight attorney brother, has a most interesting journey in this play, starting as the brother who feels he is as supportive of his brother's gayness as anyone could possibly be, transforming into a man who comes to respect his brother's activism and finally opens his heart to his brother, his brother's lover and his brother's cause.  Harelik delivers this epic change in character with amazing subtlety, emotional depth and a satisfying catharsis.  Patrick Breen also delivers the goods as the necessarily nebbish and completely fearful Health Department worker.  His fear of being outed is palpable and horrifying, while his willingness to stick with it, despite the potential ruining of his career, is inspiring.  After continual brow beating by Ned and the utter lack of respect he is given by others in the community because of what he does for a living, he finally breaks.  This brilliant monologue of despair, fear and loathing unleashed is superbly handled by Mr. Breen, earning him a healthy hand upon his exit.
Joe Mantello and John Benjamin Hickey

John Benjamin Hickey, surely one of this country's most under-appreciated actors, gives a mesmerizing performance as the eternally optimistic New York Times reporter, who falls in love with Ned, and tragically succumbs to the disease.  His indefatigable sunny disposition and unflagging support of Ned endears him to us immediately, just as watching his decline saddens us.  He, in effect, is the face of the disease in the play starting as a healthy gay man and ending as a shell of the man he used to be.  But the actor never lets the light of this man's soul go out, even as we mourn his death.  It is no wonder Mr. Hickey has been nominated for a Best Featured Actor Tony Award; his performance is sheer perfection.
Another Tony nominee (and Broadway debutante) is Ellen Barkin, who commands the stage, despite her diminutive stature, like the greatest Broadway actresses do.  Her voice, her very presence, commands respect, even as she doles out small bits of her character.  She lets Dr. Emma Brookner build and build until her final, incredible, shake-you-to-the-core monologue.  Yes, Ms. Barkin measures out each facet of character like she is measuring a drug about to be dispensed to a patient, allowing her to grow from a sort of enigma - is she so bitter and impassioned because she is a victim of a different plague, polio, and confined to a wheelchair? - into a compassionate, strong, ballsy firecracker who commands respect even as she is defeated and effectively shut down.  Her speech before the CDC board is one of those electrifying moments in live theatre that you are bound never to forget.

Ellen Barkin and Joe Mantello

Finally, a third Tony nominee for his work here, Joe Mantello, as Ned Weeks, is the very definition of "tour-de-force" performing.  His characterization is appropriately always at the extremes - extreme anger, extreme self-righteousness, extreme self-pity, extreme ego.  But Mantello is also careful to never let us forget that his motives are for the most part altruistic.  Only when the disease hits perilously close to home does the cause become almost too personal.  One can only imagine how exhausted the actor must be after each performance, as, in addition to being at 200% almost the entire time, he is also on the stage 99% of the time, too.  The part could very easily become a vanity project for the actor, or worse a one note performance.  Thankfully, Mr. Mantello brings astonishing nuance and variety to the role.  And even more thankfully, he came out of acting retirement to give us the performance of his career.  (Wouldn't the tweens over at Wicked be shocked!)  If, in fact, he again retires completely from acting, I thank him for allowing me to witness one of the finest single performances I have ever witnessed.
My companion on this trip was Mike, who has been with me through the entire season and well beyond.  Upon exiting the theatre, he took the conversation about audience reaction in a new direction.  "You didn't even pause before you stood up at the end," he said to me.  "Sometimes, you don't stand at all, but most of the time, you wait to stand, even if everyone else is already standing."  He's right.  I don't just stand to stand like a lot of people do.  I have often defiantly stayed seated when a performance does not warrant a standing ovation, and usually will wait until the performer I feel deserves it comes out for a bow.  This time, as Mike will tell you, I stood before the lights were even all the way out and the cast assembled. 
Every once in awhile, the play, the playwright and the entire performance deserve that much praise.  "Every once in awhile" came this season with The Normal Heart.

(Photos by Joan Marcus)
Comments? Leave one here, email me at jkstheatrescene@yahoo.com or Tweet me!


  1. So once again, I just missed you. I saw The Normal Heart on Friday night, and I agree with your review whole-heartedly. It was the most powerful thing I've experienced in a theatre since N2N. Like N2N, it took my words away. Never have I left a theatre feeling so angry. Angry wasn't the only emotion I was feeling, but it was the most overwhelming one. I am so grateful that I got see this production. I agree that everyone should be required to see it.

  2. Hey Jeff,

    I was so deeply moved by The Normal Heart. Tears were welling up through the performance and more than once, I just started sobbing. Lee Pace's monologue, about Bruce bringing his lover home to die, really got to me.

    And Joe Mantello, I cannot say enough about his brilliant performance. It was so perfectly modulated, switching effortlessly from anger to frustration to humor. He won my heart. (And he should have won the Tony.)

    I have to say that what got to me, beyond the deaths and the government indifference as horrible as they were, was the fear. The fear that these closeted men had of coming out, of possibly loosing their jobs, was palpable.

    It made me enraged and sad to think how suffocated it must have been for these men to be in the closet. How could we as a society expect people to live that way? It's inhuman. It made think about my friends who are gay and what it must have been like for them earlier in their lives. I am so happy that they're out, proud and confident about who they are. I can't imagine them any other way.

    One language choice that struck me - all of the characters refer to their lovers, not boyfriend or partner. The way language changes has always interested me. Maybe partner wasn't in use yet.

    Going in, I was afraid it would be more agitprop than play, with the characters making speeches. But I was so wrong. What a powerful, compelling human story. I'm so glad I saw it.


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