The Normal Heart, at Broadway's Golden Theatre
Gratuitous Violins rating: **** out of ****
I saw The Normal Heart and I wept.
Larry Kramer's 1985 work, this year's Tony winner for Best Revival of a Play, was so powerful and performed by such a remarkable ensemble that I don't think I've been as deeply affected by anything I've seen onstage since I started going to the theatre in 2007.
The Normal Heart is set in New York City between 1981 and 1984, when gay men were being stricken by a deadly and baffling disease that wasn't yet called AIDS. It's a largely autobiographical account of Kramer's efforts to sound the alarm and his role in founding the Gay Men's Health Crisis.
It's also the second work about this period that I've seen in the past couple of months - both by gay Jewish writers and drawing heavily on Jewish themes. While Tony Kushner's Angels in America is soaring and poetic and filled with biblical imagery The Normal Heart is searing, full of anger and references to the Holocaust.
I'm always wary of writers using Holocaust analogies but this one resonated, perhaps because I know our shared history: gays and Jews were both persecuted by the Nazis. And the story of The Normal Heart is sadly familiar: a group of people facing discrimination and unable to live their lives openly cope with a catastrophic event at a time when few know or care about their plight.
As Kramer's stand-in, activist and writer Ned Weeks, Joe Mantello is magnificent. Mantello, who directed one of my favorite musicals, Wicked, returned to acting for this role and he delivers one of the most intense and enthralling performances I've ever seen. (Interestingly, both Wicked and The Normal Heart are, in part, about feeling comfortable in your own skin.)
Abrasive and impatient with just about everyone - his brother, the medical establishment, city hall, the media and his more cautious gay friends - Weeks' outrage was always understandable and earned. It never seemed like Mantello was shouting just for the sake of shouting.
He lacerates the gay community for what he sees as its timidity: "Is this how so many people just walked into gas chambers? But at least they identified themselves to each other and to the world." And he's stirring and impassioned in his plea that gay men are more than simply sexual beings. We are, he says, unique and accomplished individuals - artists and writers and scientists. We helped win World War II.
And Mantello handled the play's flashes of wry humor, especially the self-deprecating Jewish kind, equally well. It's a perfectly modulated, riveting performance and it appears effortless.
What's so absorbing about Weeks is that Kramer gives us not only the activist but the personal side, too. Mark Harelik plays Weeks' brother, Ben, a successful lawyer who loves his sibling but falls short of understanding and accepting him. Their interaction and Harelik's transformation are compelling to watch.
At first Weeks' lover, Felix Turner, a closeted New York Times style reporter played by the Tony-winning John Benjamin Hickey, seems his polar opposite. But the two complement each other beautifully. Turner, quiet and calm, brings out a tenderness in the rumpled and caustic Weeks that's so appealing and poignant.
And Ellen Barkin, a Tony winner in her Broadway debut, is fierce as Dr. Emma Brookner, a physician treating gay men who have fallen ill with a rare cancer. Brookner, confined to a wheelchair from a childhood bout with polio, is electrifying as she rails against the indifference of government officials and medical researchers toward the disease.
The title of The Normal Heart comes from a poem by W.H. Auden, "Sept. 1, 1939." It contains the line "We must love one another or die." But what happens when you love one another and die? Brookner lectures an incredulous Weeks that in order to save their lives, he must urge gay men to stop having sex. When he asks her whether at least they can still kiss she responds, simply, that she just doesn't know.
I've seen more than my fair share of preachiness onstage and from what I knew about The Normal Heart going in, I was afraid that it would be more agitprop than anything else. I was so wrong. Directors George C. Wolfe and Joel Grey bring out the best in everyone in the superb cast and they all deliver compelling performances. Yes, it's political but Kramer never allows the audience to forget that this is a very human story.
The first time I couldn't hold back the tears that had been welling up all evening was in a scene where Lee Pace, playing closeted Citibank executive Bruce Niles, describes bringing his lover home to die. Hearing what they went through, the ignorance and prejudice they faced, was anguishing and I started to weep.
But what truly got to me in The Normal Heart, beyond the deaths and the indifference toward this nascent epidemic, as horrible as they were, was the fear.
The fear that men like Turner, Niles and Patrick Breen's Health Department worker Mickey Marcus expressed about identifying themselves publicly as gay, and possibly losing their jobs, was palpable and heartbreaking. They could barely bring themselves to be associated with an organization that had the word "gay" in its name.
I saw The Normal Heart two days after the New York state Senate voted to legalize gay marriage. Astonishingly, there are a couple of references to marriage in the play, a topic that I don't think was on anybody's radar in the 1980s. Talk about prescience. (It also struck me that the men refer to their "lovers," never to a partner or even boyfriend.)
Jim Parsons, who plays the sweet and easygoing Southerner Tommy Boatwright, got huge applause when he said, "Maybe if they'd let us get married to begin with none of this would have happened at all."
Twenty-five years after the events depicted in The Normal Heart, AIDS has become a manageable disease - if you're in the developed world and have access to health care. Today, the GMHC has a long list of corporate donors and even an official airline.
But the play's depiction of a community under stress gives it a certain timelessness. The Normal Heart is a potent reminder of how far we've come and how much work remains. (And producer Daryl Roth deserves an immense amount of credit for bringing it to Broadway. You can listen to her talk about it here.)
Everyone leaving the theatre gets a letter from Kramer telling us that what we saw was true and that the fight against AIDS continues. "Please know that the world has suffered at the very least some 75 million infections and 35 million deaths. When the action of the play that you have just seen begins, there were 41."
And while more and more Americans know someone who is gay, and support for same-sex marriage grows, homophobia certainly hasn't disappeared.
Last week, a report came out saying that half of gay and lesbian white-collar workers are not out in the workplace. It remains legal in 29 states to discriminate against someone on the job because of their sexual orientation. Those are shameful statistics. No one should fear losing their job because they're gay or lesbian.
Unfortunately, this is the final week for The Normal Heart on Broadway. But the producers are aiming for a national tour. Everyone - gay and straight - should see it.