Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - April 27, 2011
The Normal Heart by Larry Kramer. Directed by Joel Grey & George C. Wolfe. Scenic design by David Rockwell, Costume design by Martin Pakledinaz, Lighting design by David Weiner, Projection design by Batwin + Robin Productions, Inc., Original music and sound design by David van Tieghem. Cast: Ellen Barkin, Patrick Breen, Mark Harelik, John Benjamin Hickey, Luke MacFarlane, Joe Mantello, Lee Pace, Jim Parsons, Richard Topol, Wayne Alan Wilcox
Its absence is most keenly felt in the play’s star, Joe Mantello. Though better known today as a director (with Wicked the longest-running and most prestigious of his many credits), he began as an actor, even originating Louis in Angels in America in New York, so he’s not poorly equipped to play the central figure of Ned Weeks. With distinctly greying hair and a piercing fatalistic sensibility, he strikes all the right chords as an older gay writer who unwittingly finds himself at the center of Manhattan’s catastrophic AIDS outbreak. Dozens of friends around him are dying, and his desperate attempts to get the disease noticed by the major media, and for gay leaders to stop preaching the sexual freedom that’s rapidly killing off whole generations, are only making matters worse as he falls in love himself for the first time ever.
Ned, whom Kramer based judiciously on himself, has much to be angry about. And his rage must be responsible for both propelling and repelling the play’s other characters, ranging from his straight lawyer brother to the other founders of an advocacy organization much like the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, to say nothing of the audience. Time after time, others ask Ned to quiet down, to let rational thinking and subversive talk carry the day instead of the loudmouthed antics Ned prefers, and his unwillingness to back off, even when faced with astringent adversity, is central to who he and the play are. There’s no question that Mantello’s Ned is irritated, even perturbed, as he sees absurdities mounting around him. But whether chewing out a city governmental drone or even his own lover, Felix, for his unwillingness to take care of himself, Mantello is so reasonable that few of the reverse-protestations make sense.
This is absolutely not to say that Mantello is not “good” in the role. By any traditional standards, he is. He beautifully builds Ned’s arc, from skeptical ignorance to holy crusader; and convinces completely as both the smart-assed troublemaker and the late-blooming lover who discovers his life’s purpose at the instant it becomes impossible to fulfill. And Mantello possesses a supple, even musical, speaking voice he’s seldom deployed during live or television appearances, which only accentuates and draws you into Ned’s humanity. Unfortunately, the character isn’t supposed to be human — he’s a juggernaut, a force of nature operating on the time-honored principle of “might makes right,” even when (perhaps exclusively when) it doesn’t. So Mantello’s meticulous presentation of Ned’s faults and fears ends up obscuring — rather than bolstering — the character’s position as a restless rabble-rouser.
The Normal Heart is so stuffed with action, pain, and feeling, it can never be boring even with a low-key Ned. But despite the loving directing work of Grey and Wolfe, and the integral contributions of David Rockwell and Batwin + Robin Productions in designing the sets and projections, which call firm attention to the terrifying timeline of events the play documents, the dividends this production pays are a far cry from the ecstatic, apoplectic shudders of triumphant terror it can generate at its best. New York last saw the play in 2004, at The Public Theater (where it originated), in a David Esbjornson–directed production starring Raul Esparza that could strip the skin off your bones. This one specializes in goose bumps — which are not enough.
Most of the other actors are just as technically accomplished as Mantello, but occupy roles where their dedication to nuance is better served. John Benjamin Hickey is a reserved but feisty Felix, bringing to full bear the tangled complexities of being a gay man in the heart of a straight world (despite being a Styles editor at the Times). Mark Harelik projects a stern disinterest at first as Ned’s brother, Ben, but his stolidity gradually cracks to reveal deeper emotions as he surveys the damage his prejudices wreak. Lee Pace is magnetic as the heavily closeted Bruce, who somehow ascends to the organization’s presidency, portraying with moving aplomb the angst and bravery that are constantly grappling for his soul. Patrick Breen and Jim Parsons are both darkly satisfying as two other suffering soldiers fighting on Ned’s front lines.
But blister-inducing fire is spewed only once. It emanates from Dr. Emma Brookner, the wheelchair-bound physician who becomes a one-woman triage center for literally hundreds of AIDS cases — and sees nearly all her patients die. As played by Ellen Barkin, she begins concerned but highly clinical, slowly metamorphosing into the most objectively passionate — and therefore sensibly outraged — person we meet. But it takes her until she’s visited by a medical examiner, who’s come to tell her that her application for Federal funding has been denied, to utterly lose her temper. Ripping papers from a file folder and flinging them about the stage like pornographic confetti, she abandons any hint of professional propriety to lay into the Examiner with withering, wonderful ferocity.
Her tirade leaves you tingling, and your soul aching for action. At the performance I attended, Barkin’s delivery of the speech stopped the show cold, no less than if it were a titanic 11-o’clock number in a musical. It has much in common with those theatrical fixtures: giving plangent voice to someone we need to hear from, giving a name lead the chance to strut herself, and reminding us of the emotions the theatre is capable of sending surging through our bones. For her few moments in the spotlight, Barkin stows the BB gun, takes aim with a rocket launcher, and hits you square in the gut. That approach may be violent, but it’s why The Normal Heart was written, and why it continues to fascinate and incite. It’s also exactly what this beautiful, thoughtful, and underpowered production needs much, much more of.