Wednesday, April 27, 2011

theatre review - THE NORMAL HEART, Broadway, April 26

Hailed by London’s National Theatre as “one of the greatest 100 plays of the 20th century,” Larry Kramer's play The Normal Heart has returned to New  York and opens on Broadway tonight.   I caught it last night and here is my review.

The play originally ran Off Broadway in 1985 and chronicles the early days of the AIDS crisis in New York City, told mainly from the viewpoint of the author who was one of the founders of the Gay Men's Health Crisis (GHMC) in New York City. It is hard to believe that it was almost exactly thirty years ago when the NY Times ran their first story about the "gay cancer" buried far back in the paper.   The Normal Heart begins at that time in the history of the AIDS crisis and for 2 1/2 hours never let's down on it's attack on the apathy of the gay community and the medical establishment and government's unwillingness to do anything to stop it.  It is an emotional, profound and moving play, but filled with laughter as well, and I highly recommend it. I also have to believe this is the front runner for this year's Tony for Best Revival of a Play.

The cast that directors Joel Grey and George C. Wolfe have assembled is a pretty stellar one.   Joe Mantello is Ned Weeks, the part modeled on Kramer as well as his real life involvement with starting the GMHC.  Mantello has the ferocious passion that Kramer was known for and he plays it expertly, never making it feel forced but instead making it more of just another natural part of Ned's personality.  He is a volcano, erupting throughout the play and Mantello will definitely find himself with a Tony nomination next week.  Mantello is now more known for his directing, including having directed the mega- hit Wicked, but I first saw him act in the original Broadway cast of Angels in America on Broadway, and he was excellent in that.  It is nice to see him back on the stage again.

Joe Mantello
John Benjamin Hickey is Alex, Ned's lover who is diagnosed with the disease.  I believe I first saw Hickey in another groundbreaking gay play, the mid 90's hit Love! Valour! Compassion! and he currently co-stars on the Showtime series The C Word.   He is the grounding center and emotional counterpoint to Ned's exuberant state and the passionate connection between the two men comes across as truly legitimate, real and layered, just like any relationship.
Ellen Barkin

Making her Broadway debut as Dr. Emma, the woman who Alex and most of his friends go to for diagnosis and treatment is Ellen Barkin.  Considering that she is the only woman in the cast and that her character has polio so is wheelchair bound, you would think she might find it hard to compete with the large male cast.  But Barkin delivers in spades with a performance that is as emotionally grounded and passionate as Mantello's is, just without the shouting. 

I have to believe that Hickey and Barkin will also be getting Tony nominations next week.

Pace, Parsons, Mantello and Breen

The cast also includes three men better known for their tv and film work and all making their Broadway debuts.  Lee Pace, who starred on the tv show Pushing Daisies as well as got a Golden Globe nom for his starring role as the transgendered title character in the Showtime movie Soldier's Girl, is Bruce.  He is the handsome volunteer who becomes the president of GMHC even though Ned founded it since Ned's views of how it should be run sharply conflict with the views of the rest of its members.  Bruce is a VP at Citibank and fears his homosexuality, if found out, could get him fired.  You have to remember that in the early 80's gay men had very little protection against any form of discrimination, employment, housing, etc.  Needless to say, the completely out Ned and Bruce clash on their views as well as their differences of opinion.   Pace is perfect in the part, effortlessly demonstrating the passion that he has for the cause but can't always show in public for fear of his job, which is a major problem when you're the President of a gay organization that often makes the news.  The fact that Pace is at least 1/2 foot taller then Mantello makes the arguments between the two resonate even more.  It's almost as if there is no way Mantello can win as Pace towers over him, just like Ned feels the government and medical community towers over him in his fight.

Jim Parsons is Tommy, the young volunteer who often gets in the middle of the arguments that Bruce and Ned have.  Parsons won the Emmy and Golden Globe for his starring role in the hit tv comedy The Big Bang Theory and his comic chops are used to perfection here as he gets most of the laughs with his line delivery, a look or just the way he leaves a room.  But he also displays a complete focus on the dramatic and emotional parts as well.  Also making his Broadway debut is Luke MacFarlane, best known for playing Scotty on the tv show Brothers and Sisters.  MacFarlane plays two smaller parts, but plays both nicely.  The first part he plays is of one of the early men who gets the disease and he displays the requisite passion and fear one would expect you'd experience when you have been told you have something that no one knows what it is and you are going to die.

Complete cast, from left- MacFarlane, Breen, Barkin, Parsons,
Mantello, Pace, Topol, Hickey, Harelik and Wayne Wilcox
Rounding out the cast is a list of seasoned Broadway actors including Mark Harelik as Ned's straight, older brother who is a partner in a law firm that helps GMHC get up and running legally as a not for profit.   Harelik captures the older brother who, though not disapproving of his gay brother, still doesn't believe he is his equal.  Something that alot of gay men experience with dealing with family, especially still today with the right to marry.  Patrick Breen is one of the volunteers who also fears for his job since he works for the city.  Breen has an emotional meltdown in act two that perfectly shows the pain, suffering and emotions that the association with this cause brought to many people.  Richard Topol has two smaller parts and one is of a closeted member of the Mayor's team.  That character and his portrayal of him, clearly shows the struggle that politicians were going through at this time - including President Reagen - in their refusal to deal with the issue, or even say the word AIDS in fear that it would hurt their political future.

Together the cast works in perfect harmony to present a moving story of how a group of people can come together to fight something that at many times it seems they are the only ones who truly care about.  I found it completely intriguing and moving.  And, even though the opposing views often lead to frequent arguments that threaten to undermine the group's mutual goal, the fact that each character is based on an actual person and that the events in the play really happened, make the passion that each character has for this cause something that should make everyone stop and take notice -and do something about it themselves.

Now, one could criticize the play and say that for the most part it is presented as a one sided argument.  But when the argument deals with hundreds and then thousands of people dying when the government does nothing, it is hard to quibble.

GMHC is the largest private organization that assists people with HIV so Larry should be proud of what he was able to begin.   And, Kramer is still fighting the fight.  He is having letters passed out when you leave the theatre that drive home the points the play makes with the main emphasis being that it is 30 years later and there is still no cure, the funds being spent to try to find a cure are small and totally uncoordinated and that many people will continue to needlessly die due to the inability of the government and the drug companies to not make finding a cure a priority. 

Official Show Site

Amazon link for the paperback of the play and it's sequel - The Normal Heart and the Destiny of Me

Highlights from the Broadway revival -


  1. It’s been 30 years! We are long overdue for a cure! Please support re:solve AIDS and the Chronic Disease Fund.

  2. It sounds an amazing production. Would love to see it. Thanks for the review!