Thoughts on The Normal Heart on Broadway

Last evening I attended a performance of the Broadway production of Larry Kramer’s landmark play, The Normal Heart, and I learned a lot of valuable information about the play in production.  I’ve taught this play a number of times in different classes that I teach at NYU, and I’ve used scenes from it in acting classes.  The current production directed by Joel Grey and George C. Wolfe takes a didactic script written in the early years of the AIDS pandemic and presents it in such a way that an audience stays with the story for much of the two and a half hours that it takes for the actors to move through the experience.  The production is largely successful, but it does not always overcome the limitations of the script.

Kramer’s play first ran off-Broadway in 1985 at the height of the AIDS pandemic in New York City, and it essentially serves as a call to arms in the fight against the disease.  The story of Ned Weeks, the play’s main character, is essentially Kramer’s own story, and the play follows his experiences creating Gay Men’s Health Crisis.  Because the play needed to teach and raise awareness in the 80s about the growing rate of HIV infection, the script contains long sections of exposition that sometimes hinder the narrative flow of the play.  Also, several of the characters are difficult to like, particularly the protagonist, Ned Weeks.  This presents a difficult challenge for the actors playing these roles, as if the audience can’t find a reason to like these people and root for them, the experience loses steam.  Quickly.

I’m happy to say that the acting in this production, for the most part, is the main reason that it has achieved popular and critical acclaim.  The action of the play takes place on a very simple unit set, and additional pieces of furniture are largely moved and manipulated by the actors.  It’s an actor-driven event, which also helps to keep the experience moving forward.  All elements of the design, including the projections, work well to remind of us of the overarching purpose of the play, which is to educate about the AIDS crisis.  Given that it’s now almost 30 years later, we know much of the information that’s being conveyed in the play.  It’s a testament to the actors that we still want to pay attention.  As my boyfriend pointed out to me last night, we know how the story ends, and it’s not good.  But these actors commit to the purpose of the play and its circumstances, and as a result, we stay with them.

Joe Mantello, known more now as a director than as an actor, plays Ned Weeks with an attention to likability that I appreciated from start to finish.  Ned’s tirades throughout the play can become tiresome, although they are filled with truth, but Mantello allows us to see Ned’s vulnerability, passion, and intelligence.  It was a privilege to see Mantello onstage, and I hope that he returns again in the future.  I thoroughly enjoyed watching the mechanics of his work as an actor.

John Benjamin Hickey plays Felix Turner, the eventual lover of Ned Weeks, and for me, his performance is the highlight.  Felix’s journey in the play is an unpleasant one, and Hickey takes that trip with very little assistance other than his own acting ability.  It’s an extraordinary progression that provides the audience with a cathartic moment in an otherwise preachy play.  Hickey calibrates his choices carefully and earns every moment that he has as the play draws to a close.  Felix also manages to help us see the tenderness in Ned Weeks, something no other character achieves in the play.  This stands to reason since Felix is the lover, but Hickey brings something to the portrayal that is genuine and thoughtful.

The rest of the cast is strong but not always in the same league as Mantello and Hickey.  Lee Pace as Bruce Niles is compelling in the second act when he delivers his monologue about the loss of his third partner.  The story is devastating to listen to, and Pace stays disconnected enough to force us to see every detail that he describes.  He holds back on the emotion, and it’s an effective technique to get the audience to listen carefully to the circumstances rather than simply weep for his loss.  Unfortunately in other moments in his performance, Pace takes on this stance with his upstage leg forward and leaning back on his downstage leg.  I think it’s an attempt to establish an archetypal image of this good looking gay man from the period, but instead it reads as George Washington standing in the row boat, crossing the Delaware River. I remember Pace’s work when he was a student at Juilliard, and I was surprised by this strange physicality.  I think he’s a great actor.

Jim Parsons of Big Bang Theory fame does an excellent turn as Tommy Boatwright, providing several great one-liners and moments of breath in a very heavy evening.  Ellen Barkin makes her Broadway debut as Dr. Emma Brookner, a tough, wheelchair-bound doctor handling most of the early AIDS cases in New York City at the time.  Her moments are well-played, but she’s got one of hardest pieces in the play, a second act monologue that basically stays on one emotional pitch from start to finish.  Barkin manages it well, and the audience acknowledged that at the conclusion of the piece last evening, but I couldn’t help but wonder if there’s a bit more to Dr. Brookner.  I think she’s written as a fairly two-dimensional character, but I think there’s more there.

At the top of the performance, we see the actors come onstage, place various set pieces, and Barkin gets into her wheelchair.  It’s an indication that we’re about to watch a play, and that we should not forget that these are actors playing characters, a Brechtian staging technique that stops the audience from having a catharsis.  As the performance unfolds, Grey and Wolfe add the actors not in the scenes, placing them in chairs upstage to witness what’s unfolding before them.  I typically love this technique of mirroring the audience’s experience with the actors onstage, but I did not love it as a convention in this performance.  As soon as it started, I knew why it was being used, but I was perplexed by the choice of when to start it.  I can’t even actually remember for sure where that moment was, but I’m curious why it’s not there from the beginning.

Overall, I was thrilled with the opportunity to see such an accomplished company of actors take on a truly difficult and important play.  The Normal Heart is an ancestor of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, and as a gay theatre artist living and working in New York, it presents a view that has certainly shaped how I move through the world.  I’m grateful for the play and for my experience last evening.