In 1985 Larry Kramer’s play had heads spinning as it unveiled an epidemic that became known as AIDS. It was described as an unknown disease that was quickly killing gay men, eventually destroying millions.
Now debuting on Broadway at the Golden Theatre, “The Normal Heart” retains the same stunning impact it had at the Public Theatre. We know so much more, many lives have been saved but the disease still rages on in various parts of the world claiming people in both the hetero and homosexual communities.
In the starkness of a nearly bare stage, the grim tale unfolds of a political and social system too slow to the rescue, not eager to hear the realities of an epidemic. Ned Weeks, (the amazing Joe Mantello) and alter ego of Larry Kramer, is uncontrollable in his anger as an activist against this mysterious disease and the system. Friends are dying. Why? The doctor who is treating the gay community, paraplegic Emma Brookner (Ellen Barkin), has a no-nonsense approach as she expounds accurate predictions “I think we’re seeing only the tip of the iceberg . . . I’m frightened nobody important is going to give a damn because it seems to be happening mostly to gay men.”
It is Weeks’ indignation that stirs a group of gay men; Bruce Niles (Lee Pace), Mickey Marcus (Patrick Breen) and Tommy (Jim Parsons), to found the newly formed Gay Men’s Health Crisis. Ned solicits his successful brother (Mark Harelik) a lawyer, who is slow to show concern and more involved with building a $2 million house in Ct.
Ned’s outrage is unrelenting as he engages others in his vociferous manner. He has put love aside, lashing out at everyone including the style writer at the New York Times, Felix Turner (an award winning performance by John Benjamin Hickey) who eventually reminds Ned they had an affair a long time back. Felix’ pursuit of Ned results in a relationship that ends in grief as Felix succumbs to the dread disease.
The fast pace at which the play moves from scene to scene, (under the brilliant tutelage of directors Joel Grey and George C. Wolfe) replete with moments of humor, as the excellent cast raise their voices in terror and anguish at each other and the politicos who refuse to listen; the Mayor’s assistant Hiram Keebler (Richard Topol), a closeted gay, the Mayor (who at the time was Ed Koch); result in explosions of pain as each of the men are afraid to be found out in the work place, of losing jobs and families. Breen’s exquisite monologue of dread and frustration is heart rendering, as he nearly breaks apart. It is equal only to Barkin’s, as she lashes out at the bureaucratic official at the NIH who turns her down for research money.
The ascetic white brick walls with sparse scenic accessories (David Rockwell) serve as backdrop to projections (Batwin+Robin Productions) of words, phrases, photos and the scrolling of names of those who have died. David Weiner is responsible for the lighting. Martin Pakledinaz has designed the costumes of the period.
Larry Kramer can be seen outside the theatre after various performances handing out flyers reminding us that the fight continues and is far from over.
The Golden Theatre, West 45th Street, NYC. Thru July 10th