Theater Review: "The Normal Heart" On Broadway
As a wave of sniffles erupt through the audience, it becomes clear that the Broadway debut of Larry Kramer’s 1985 play "The Normal Heart" is going to be an emotional ride. It’s not entirely unexpected, as it is a drama about AIDS, but this show is surprisingly affecting.
The play, which is based on Kramer’s own life, follows New Yorker Ned Weeks from July, 1981 through May, 1984, right around the breakout of the AIDS crisis in the city. Ned, a gay man, sees his friends dying all around him from this strange new illness and is determined to take action.
The play really emphasizes just how quick and deadly the disease was at that point in time. No one really knew what it was, there was no name for it, and it was not clear why it only seemed to be affecting gay people, and why they were becoming infected at such a high rate. Dr. Emma Brookner suggests to Weeks that he should tell the gay population of New York City to stop having sex, a seemingly impossible task. Nevertheless, as more of Ned’s friends die (over 40 people he knows succumb to the disease), he forms a coalition with Bruce Niles, who is still in the closet, and the financial advice of his straight, not-entirely-willing-to-be-attached-to-a-gay-cause brother, Ben Weeks, and his law firm.
The cast does an outstanding job dealing with such heavy material. Joe Mantello in particular shines as Ned Weeks. Ned is a difficult character in every sense of the word. He compulsively pushes everyone away and almost tries to make himself unlovable as a defense mechanism, but Mantello still manages to make the audience like him. Weeks could easily be turned into a shrewish, irascible protester, but through Mantello’s portrayal, the audience can see his heart (normal or abnormal as it may be) and empathize.
Jim Parsons is also fantastic as Tommy Boatwright, stealing every scene in which he appears. The actor, who won an Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series for his work on The Big Bang Theory, gives the show some needed cheerfulness.
Lee Pace also does a great job as Bruce, the president and “face” of the advocacy group (he is deemed more attractive and more likable than Ned, who is rather irascible). In particular, one of Pace’s monologues toward the end of play really emphasizes how terrible the AIDS crisis was and how much fear there was of the unknown.
While these three are standouts, it is certainly not at the expense of the rest of the cast, who also all turn in outstanding performances.
However, the play is not without weaknesses — at times, it seems more like a series of monologues than a cohesive play, and Ned Weeks’ character is inherently alienating. The direction, by Joel Grey and George C. Wolfe, is also confusing at times, as when characters remain onstage for no particular reason.
In spite of those flaws, though, the show is remarkably well-acted, and even more importantly, communicates an important message about AIDS and the gay rights movement in America. It is clear that as a nation, we have come a long way on both fronts — word surfaced not even two weeks ago that a man was cured of AIDS, but it is also quite clear that we still have a lot of work to do. The play manages to teach the audience about AIDS in an interesting and engaging way that encourages passion like Ned Weeks’.
Reach reporter Katie by e-mail here.