Larry Kramer’s "The Normal Heart" was not the first AIDS play to be prominently produced…the first was William Hoffman’s gentler "As Is", which seemed to me at the time (the early mid-80s) the better play. My memories of it are not clear, and I might still find it so. But it is "The Normal Heart" that really made impact, worldwide. In part because it’s noisier. Hoffman’s play is up close and intimate, about a male couple learning to cope with the spectre of impending death. Kramer’s is political. In keeping with the author’s famously outspoken personality, "The Normal Heart" is a raging diatribe against a government that refused to acknowledge a verifiable plague because it was being contracted by an unpopular minority.
Unlike most plays written to address current issues, "The Normal Heart" has not faded with age, but, rather, deepened. In its time it was a cry for attention. But now, with AIDS nowhere near cured, yet in some cases treatable, it’s more a historical document: a marker of how far we’ve come and how much further we have to go. After a fashion, it’s a courtroom drama about crimes against humanity, like "Judgment at Neuremberg", though the courtrooms are forums of world press, closed-door hearings and public awareness.
The story is simple in outline, but detailed and complex in execution. In 1981, a writer named Ned Weeks (Joe Mantello) observes and hears about friends and acquaintances receiving death sentences–and dying–of some new disease no one in mainstream government or medicine wants to acknowledge, much less talk about. He goes on a crusade to do something about it, becomes a founding member of a gay activist organization devoted to the cause and is so uncompromisingly angry in his battle that he even alienates his own colleagues. Meanwhile, his personal involvement with Felix Turner a New York Times reporter he approaches to cover the story (John Benjamin Hickey) has blossomed into a love affair. A cursed one, because in time, Felix is diagnosed…
I don’t have vivid memories of the original production (directed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg and starring the late Brad Davis who would himself become a victim of AIDS), but I do have a lingering abstract impression, perhaps exacerbated misleadingly over time, of it being shrill, relentless and lit with florescent brightness. The current production, co-directed by George Wolfe (who would become artistic director of the Public Theatre, where they play debuted, some years after its run) and Joel Grey (who succeeded Brad Davis in the initial run), however, is a more contained affair, in part because it happens on a proscenium stage, rather than 3/4 arena of the Public’s Anspacher space; and the design hues are gray and black. The containment seems to work well emotionally too. Where the first production seemed to be at rage peak far too often for the righteous anger to retain its best effectiveness, here the rants of Ned Weeks (the semi-autobiographical stand-in for the author himself) are treated by both actor and director in a manner not dissimilar to a song cycle, tempered, shaded and varied, the real primal screams of maximum outrage saved for when they truly matter. Of course it doesn’t hurt that the role is played by yet a third gifted director, revisiting his acting chops, Joe Mantello. I don’t mean for a moment to suggest that he didn’t give over to the process and let the directors direct—but no one has his track record as director without bringing to the party some damned fine instincts and insights. This doesn’t make the play any less didactically overwritten or structurally clunky–but it does allow the real human drama optimum power to be moving on its own terms apart from the political objectives.
The cast is generally excellent, with Mr. Mantello being very powerful indeed; Ellen Barkin as a crusade-minded doctor being inflammatory, wry and sad; Mark Harelik, as Ned’s straight, establishment lawyer brother, very frustratingly convincing as the guy who doesn’t quite "get it," much as he’d like to. And the aforementioned Mr. Hickey presents a funny, then wrenching portrait of the guy who believes it’ll never happen to him…until it does.
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