The outbreak of a dread disease is a terrible thing; of an unknown one, even more so. When what came to be known as AIDS started killing homosexuals, Larry Kramer was the one who sprung to action. Not only a terrific activist, but also, it turns out, a powerful dramatist. The Normal Heart was stirring when it opened at the Public Theater 1n 1985. Arriving now on Broadway, it may be even more arresting.
The play is built around the true story of Ned Weeks (really Larry Kramer), earliest in crying out for recognition of an emergency, which neither Mayor Koch nor The New York Times, neither the medical establishment nor the majority of gay men afraid of coming out into the open even at the risk of certain death, were ready to acknowledge. The play scores with sharp yet not uncompassionate characterization of every type of reaction, with understanding for all, however misguided.
Even when Ned (really Alexander, but with a name affectionately adopted from Philip Barry’s Holiday, showing his wider sympathies) finally gets an organization—based on Gay Men’s Health Crisis group—started, he ends up demoted by it because of what are considered his incriminatory rants, alienating just about everyone within earshot. But rage is justified, and Ned has at least one staunch ally in paraplegic Doctor Emma Brookner, who sees her roster of mortally ill patients growing at an alarming rate.
Kramer has been accused of self-glorification—unjustly, because facts aside, Ned is also shown in moments of self-doubt and faltering. And he is both strong and vulnerable in his love affair with Felix, who at first ignores Ned’s supposed alarmism, but later falls prey to AIDS himself. It is a deeply moving relationship caught in every agonizing, as well as heroic, detail. But almost as fascinating is Ned’s relationship with his heterosexual lawyer brother. Ben (beautifully played by Mark Harelik) loves him but gently patronizes him and exasperates Ned, yet kinship bridges the gap of their differences.
Touching, too, is the friendship with Dr. Brookner (like almost everyone else here, a real-life person) whose anger matches his. Ellen Barkin portrays her with shattering power, her great outburst (every character gets at least one) has her voice coming out in staccato bursts at tiny intervals, and the more affecting for it. The extended tonitruous applause for it stops the heart nearly as much as the show.
Impressively, David Rockwell’s set recalls the original production> White walls (the hospital is seldom far) with catch phrases embossed on them; subsequently the names of the dead projected, white on black, scrolling down in seemingly unending numbers. David Van Tieghem’s music and sound design dramatically underscore the text.
The two male leads perform matchlessly. As Ned, Joe Mantello, an actor turned prominent director, returns to acting with bravura. His emotional range is extraordinary, what with startling emphases, canny modulations, sudden changes of tempo, also savvy body movements and highly suggestive facial expressions, everything exemplarily expressive. He is superlatively matched by the Felix of John Benjamin Hickey, the two of them bodying forth their doomed love affair in heartrending details as it intensifies even as Felix’s capacities diminish. There is nothing here that should not provoke equal heterosexual as homosexual tears.
The supporting performances shine as well: Patrick Breen, Lee Pace, Jim Parsons, Richard Topol, Luke Macfarlane and Wayne Alan Wilcox could not etch more compellingly the forms of reactions to the crisis: comprehension, incomprehension, impotent apprehension or cras cynicism. There is even a fair amount of wit—largely but not exclusively gallows humor. The dialogue runs the gamut from harrowing stridency to muted despair, never lapsing into sentimentality, melodrama, or preachment.
Directed in an initial reading by Joel Grey, then expanded into full staging with George C. Wolfe, the pacing never rushes or slackens unduly. David Weiner’s lighting is suitably merciless, and Martin Pakledinaz’s costuming wonderfully captures various gay sartorial strategies.
Do not think for a moment that AIDS has been defeated. It fulgurates the world over, attacking heterosexuals as well as gays. Condoms are not a solution, medication is extremely tricky, and real cure is still up to insufficiently funded research. The Normal Heart lends its not inconspicuous voice to the need for conclusive remedy.
John Simon has written for over 50 years on theatre, film, literature, music and fine arts for the Hudson Review, New Leader, New Criterion, National Review,New York Magazine, Opera News, Weekly Standard, Broadway.com and Bloomberg News. He reviews books for the New York Times Book Review and Washington Post. He has written profiles for Vogue, Town and Country, Departures and Connoisseur and produced 17 books of collected writings. Mr. Simon holds a PhD from Harvard University in Comparative Literature and has taught at MIT, Harvard University, Bard College and Marymount Manhattan College.
To learn more, visit the JohnSimon-Uncensored.com website.