The Normal Heart
Public Theatre, NYC - April 2004
Review by John Kenrick
So why is Musicals101 reviewing the Public Theatre's revival of The Normal Heart? For two reasons. First, the cast includes two popular musical stage stars in performances that will be talked about for years to come. Second -- and most importantly -- this production is one of the most searing, mind blowing and life affirming theatrical experiences that New York has seen in decades.
The same was true of the original production, which took place at the Public back in 1985. The Normal Heart was one of the first important plays about AIDS -- not only looking at the way the nightmarish disease affected lives, but also at the way government, the media, the public at large and the gay community in particular fed the plague by consistently refusing to deal with it. The sad fact is, this sort of "head in the sand" approach is still with us today.
As one of the founders of Gay Mens's Health Crisis, playwright Larry Kramer was an early combatants on the front lines of AIDS activism. His strident, uncompromising tactics forced people to notice -- and so alienated his less militant colleagues that they eventually booted him out of the organization. (He went on to co-found the less compromising ACT UP.) Kramer's experiences battling with city and federal officials, the New York Times, fellow activists and a society unwilling to face the realities of AIDS formed the basis for this play.
As originally cast and staged, The Normal Heart was stark, angry and relentless. The set consisted of a few props and pieces of furniture, all seen against a back wall covered with horrifying statistics that were updated as the run continued -- 12,062 had died of AIDS by the time the show opened, the Federal government was spending a meager $120,000 on AIDS education, New York's Mayor Koch was devoting only $75,000 to community services (versus $16 million in San Francisco), and the number of new cases was doubling every six months.
The revival takes a slightly different, but equally effective approach. The new physical production is again minimal, but the back wall now offers the Bill of Rights. With unprotected sex in style and the number of new AIDS cases again on the rise, The Normal Heart's call for gay men to define themselves as something more than sexual omnivores couldn't be more timely. But the play's early call for marriage as a civil human right (a theme that was in the original text) comes right out of today's headlines. And after the performance, a placard appears by the exit with a recent quote from a doctor at Rockefeller University, stating that the decade ahead may well see the number of AIDS cases reach 200 million. Our society still refuses to deal with things as they really are. Hell, The Normal Heart is actually more pertinent in 2004 than it was in 1985!
Lead character Ned Weeks (based on Kramer) is all to easy to dislike, and the tough themes at work here could make even sympathetic audiences uneasy. By carefully calibrating the rising tensions, director David Esbjornson (who helmed the remarkable Broadway production of The Goat) turns a potential shout-fest into a brilliantly calibrated gradual journey into hellish emotions -- ending with a glorious sense of redemption and affirmation. Broadway veteran Eugene Lee keeps the settings sleek and unobtrusive (no small feat in a three-sided auditorium), and while Jess Goldstein's costumes are more contemporary than mid-80s, that only adds to the uneasy feeling that this "old" play is delivering a message of unusual immediacy. Ken Billington affirms his status as one of the finest lighting designers in the business with effects that are never distracting but often breathtaking.
As Ned Weeks, Raul Esparza gives the finest performance of his career. From tick tick BOOM to Rocky Horror to Sondheim classics to The Normal Heart? His versatility continues to amaze me. The risky decision to play much of Ned's dialogue at high speed pays off, communicating Ned's furious drive without sacrificing a single word of the play. Esparza provides the sense of inner humanity that allows audiences to get beyond this character's harsh and sometimes disturbing outbursts of anger and frustration. It is one thing to justify Ned -- it is another to bring us into his soul. Esparza succeeds at the latter as well as the former, and the results will tear your heart out.
As Ned's lover Felix, Emmy winning soap opera star Billy Warlock makes an impressive New York stage debut, making the very difficult transition from sexy to shattered as his character faces the ravages of AIDS. Tony winner Joanna Gleason is a kick-ass wonder as Emma Brookner, the wheelchair-bound doctor who finds herself swamped in the first waves of patients infected with this ruthless killer -- those who only know her from her comedy work on TV will find this performance a revelation. Those of us who know and lover her stage work will find this role one of the most unforgettable highlights of her career.
Richard Bekins is warmly sympathetic as Ned's brother Ben, and McCaleb Burnett takes a fresh and altogether winning approach to Tommy, the seemingly fey Southerner who turns out to have a soul of solid gold. Fred Berman makes Mickey's tricky build up to a nervous breakdown extraordinarily effective, and Mark Dobies is thoroughly believable as the closeted bank executive who finds himself the unwilling leader of a gay organization. Jay Russell and Paul Whitthorne fill out the ensemble, handling multiple roles with solid showmanship.
The Normal Heart is not a romp in the park. If it upsets you, then it was high time you were upset. I guarantee it will move you -- and something more. Remember that unforgettable feeling truly great theatre gives you, when you leave a performance and find yourself both envying and pitying those on the street or in the subway because they have not just shared what you've experienced? See this new production of The Normal Heart, and get that feeling.