The Normal Heart

  • Our critic's rating:
    April 1, 2010
    Review by:
    Tulis McCall

    Review by Tulis McCall
    (28 Apr 2010)

    Back in the 1980’s I remember saying that there would not be a cure for AIDS until it hit the white heterosexual population full on. That never happened, and AIDS is still killing people.

    So, in a way, not a lot has changed since this extraordinary play was written and produced. Except that the death toll has gone from 41 people to 35,000,000.

    This is a breathtaking play, literally and figuratively. The story of Ned Weeks (Joe Mantello) who is based on Larry Kramer is a story of a boy, not crying “Wolf!” but a man banging on neighbors doors because there is a tornado coming. The doors on which he bangs are closed and locked, and the houses are soundproofed against intruders. No one wants to hear this news, even as the earth starts to shake. Straight people, politicians – with a particular nod to Mayor Koch – and money people smell a big nothing, and the gay population is too busy hiding the fact that they are gay to have time to address a possible health crisis.

    Ned Weeks smells a story and visits Dr. Emma Brookner (Ellen Barkin) who seems to be the only doctor on the Eastern Seaboard concerned about this disease. She has filed papers and articles. She has submitted requests for funding research. Years have gone by already with little or no responses. When she and Ned meet, her patient load has recently doubled. Sparks start flying between them, and the shit hits the fan. Ned becomes so passionate and enraged that he gathers gay men together to form the first openly gay advocacy group and then alienates them in short order. Ned is demanding and fierce. All. The. Time. No one is angry enough or outspoken enough or demanding enough for Ned Weeks, not even him.

    If Ned were enough he could stop this plague. If Ned were enough he could stop AIDS from killing the only person he has ever loved, Felix Turner (John Benjamin Hickey). He could get funding from Mayor Koch’s office (they eventually offered $9,000). He would stop the government from denying Dr. Brookner research money. And most importantly Ned could make his brother Ben (Mark Harelik) understand that there was nothing “wrong” with Ned. There was nothing wrong with being gay.

    But in the end, Ned can do none of this. The only thing he can do is climb to the top of the bell tower and sound the alarm.

    This brilliant piece of writing treads the very fine line between history and drama. We get all the information, the statistics the appalling facts filtered through characters that live and breathe and stumble and fight and love. We only care about the details because Kramer makes us care about the characters. Joe Mantello takes one breath before the show and never seems takes another. So clear is he on his mission that every other event is a sub-category. Even his passion for Felix. Particularly moving is his relationship to his brother Ben. As Ben, Mark Harelik is still and certain in his position that Ned is misguided and possibly ill. Ben is the one outside voice of ignorance that is fully explored without prejudice. It is critical to the play, and Mantello and Harelik are extraordinary partners in that journey.

    The direction is static in the extreme. How two people can come up with so little for their actors to do is astonishing. In addition they made the odd choice to have the actors not in the active scenes stand or sit at the edge of the set as witnesses. This is not done consistently, however, so the meaning – if there is one – is lost. And the choice to do the deathbed scene standing up….? Hmnnnn.

    All praise and credit here goes to the cast and author. At least the directors didn’t interfere with that basic of all connections – writer to actor, normal heart to normal heart.

    "More than a quarter of a century after it first scorched New York, “The Normal Heart” is breathing fire again."
    Ben Brantley for NY Times

    "It is a breathtaking achievement. Period."
    Joe Dziemianowicz for NY Daily News

    "The Normal Heart" hasn't lost any of its anger or biting humor, but it feels more like a fascinating time capsule. "
    Elisabeth Vincentelli for New York Post

    "In a Broadway season robust with bravura performances, comes another that makes demands of our souls along with our ears. "
    Philip Boroff for Bloomberg

    "If you see only one play this year, make it "The Normal Heart."
    Erik Haagensen for Back Stage

    "A driven, searing production."
    Robert Feldberg for The Record

    "Passionate howl of political outrage. ...terrific revival."
    David Cote for Time Out NY

    "Fortunately, an excellent cast breathes great life into their characters and melts the play’s stiffer nature into compelling theater."
    Michael Sommers for Newsroom Jersey

    "This production makes a stunning case for the play’s power and relevance."
    David Rooney for The Hollywood Reporter

    "Suffers from agit-prop agita, even in this first-rate production."
    Marilyn Stasio for Variety

    External links to full reviews from popular press...

    New York Times - New York Daily News - New York Post - Bloomberg - Back Stage - The Record - Time Out New York - Newsroom Jersey - Hollywood Reporter - Variety