Review: The Normal Heart

Larry Kramer's furious AIDS drama returns in a shattering revival.

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  • Photograph: Joan Marcus

    EMERGENCY PROCEDURES Pace, Parsons, Mantello and Breen, from left, fight over...

    EMERGENCY PROCEDURES Pace, Parsons, Mantello and Breen, from left, fight over the limits of activism.

  • Photograph: Joan Marcus

    The Normal Heart

    The Normal Heart

  • Photograph: Joan Marcus

    The Normal Heart

    The Normal Heart

  • Photograph: Joan Marcus

    The Normal Heart

    The Normal Heart

  • Photograph: Joan Marcus

    The Normal Heart

    The Normal Heart

Photograph: Joan Marcus

EMERGENCY PROCEDURES Pace, Parsons, Mantello and Breen, from left, fight over...

EMERGENCY PROCEDURES Pace, Parsons, Mantello and Breen, from left, fight over the limits of activism.

Time Out Ratings :

<strong>Rating: </strong>5/5

When it debuted at the Public Theater in 1985, Larry Kramer's The Normal Heart beat like the ticking of a time bomb. The AIDS epidemic was by then full-blown, no one knew how wide it would spread, and the tabloids foamed with hysteria. Aimed equally at governments (too careless in confronting the crisis) and gay activists (too careful in confronting those governments and too protective of hard-won sexual freedoms), Kramer's autobiographical jeremiad was widely perceived as a public-service announcement. "Too urgent to ignore" is how Liz Smith described the play, and the intensity of its rage helped usher in a new gay activism, epitomized by Kramer's own ACT UP—a more aggressive version of the Gay Men's Health Crisis, whose founding and fault lines are depicted in The Normal Heart.

In its stunning Broadway revival, Kramer's ferociously rhetorical work has lost little urgency; if anything, changes to the AIDS crisis let our focus extend to the play's other concerns. This is essentially Ibsen for our times: An Enemy of the People, with Kramer's loudmouthed surrogate, Ned Weeks—played with streaming intelligence and writhing neurosis by Joe Mantello—cast as the teller of unpopular truths about the dangers of gay sex. "We just feel that you can't tell people how to live," cautions a more conservative colleague, Bruce (Pace), when Ned is really trying to tell people how not to die.

What makes the play more than the bilious "I told you so" of a vindicated Cassandra is the playwright's unsparing approach to his own failures as well as others'. This is no mere antiauthoritarian screed: It is a mesh of internal arguments—intramunicipal, intragay, intra-Jewish, intrafamilial, intra--Larry Kramer—whose questions resonate beyond the specifics of the disease that is their catalyst. And the play's complexity is brought to pulse-pounding life at the Golden Theatre. Originally billed as a reading, this is actually a full production—George C. Wolfe and Joel Grey share directorial credit—with an extraordinary cast, one of the strongest I have seen on Broadway.

The faultless ensemble includes an impeccable John Benjamin Hickey as the first man to break through Ned's defenses and Ellen Barkin as an early AIDS doctor, who brings down the house with a frustrated tirade about the slow official response to the epidemic. Pace commands tears with a superb account of the death of his lover, a passage that holds its own against the most gruesome messenger monologues of Greek tragedy. Jim Parsons provides exemplary comic relief and unexpected depth as a Southern activist in Ned's group, and Patrick Breen, Mark Harelik, Luke Macfarlane, Richard Topol and Wayne Alan Wilcox offer admirable support. The entire company acts up a storm, and the production leaves you drenched. The Normal Heart is hectoring, stiff and one-sided; it is also raw, scary and galvanizing. That's Kramer in a nutshell, and his kind of nuts we still need.

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John Golden Theatre. By Larry Kramer. Dirs. Joel Grey and George C. Wolfe. With Joe Mantello, John Benjamin Hickey, Ellen Barkin, Lee Pace. 2hrs 30mins. One intermission.

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