Saturday, June 18, 2011

Broadway's The Normal Heart

The Normal Heart, a play revival running on Broadway until July 10, is a stunning and powerful piece of theater. If you saw the Tonys this past weekend, you saw Ellen Barkin and John Benjamin Hickey win for their performances, and the show won a Tony for Best Revival of a Play.

The play is written by Larry Kramer, and the main character of Ned Weeks is based on himself. Joe Mantello, best known as the director of Wicked,  gives one of the best performances I've ever seen on Broadway, and it is a shame he did not win the Tony.

The play is set at the beginning of the AIDS crisis in NYC in 1982. Weeks and many of his friends see that many young, healthy gay men are becoming seriously ill and dying from a disease that no one knows  much about.

Barkin, in her Broadway debut, brilliantly plays Dr. Emma Brookner, one of the few doctors in NYC who is actively treating these patients and working to find out what exactly is killing them. She has a raging, powerful monologue in the second act that just leaves the audience spellbound.

Hickey plays the role of Felix, Ned's boyfriend who eventually contracts AIDS, and his scene where he rails against the havoc this disease is heartbreaking. Patrick Breen and Jim Parsons are amazing as well, and I found Mark Harelik's portrayal of Ned's lawyer brother moving, particularly his scene with Felix when Felix asks for help with his will.

The play pulls no punches in its political message; the city, state and federal government were slow to act against this epidemic because it was killing gay men. If straight people were dying in those numbers, it would have been a much higher priority.

Dr. Brookner tells Ned that someone in his group has to tell gay men to stop having sex until they find out what is causing this disease. Ned is not promiscuous, and he is at odds with his friends who fought for many years to be able to express their sexuality; some openly, some not so. Some of the men believe that gay men would not be as promiscuous if they were permitted to marry. I found that argument thought-provoking, especially given the political atmosphere in New York State right now.

The play is devastating, and many in the audience (including many men) openly wept. I noticed that Ellen Barkin was dabbing at her eyes with a tissue at times during the show when her character is on stage in the shadows. She sees this every night, and it still moves her; that is how powerful this piece is.

At the very end of the play, graphics are projected with names of people who died from AIDS on the stage and the walls. The unfathomable graphic that 75 million people have had AIDS and 35 million people died caused many audience members to gasp.

This is a play that should be seen by everyone who can go see it. The play itself is brilliant, honest and provocative, and the performances incredible. It will make you cry, laugh (at times), think and rage against the wasted time and lives.  It's also made me want to read And The Band Played On; Politics, People and the AIDS Epidemic by Randy Shilts.

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