Friday, May 13, 2011

The Normal Heart

Photo: Joan Marcus
Larry Kramer’s 1985 play The Normal Heart, currently in revival at the Golden Theater, is about as subtle and gentle as an angry camel. The characters are all spitting mad, ready to stop dead in their tracks and commence screaming into the void at the drop of a hat. The fact that what they often scream about are statistics—how much money is being spent, how much research is being done, how many men are dying painful, horrifically undignified deaths—is one of the reasons that this play is so important, but also so potentially anesthetizing. In less skilled hands, the characters could have easily become flat, and the talky, polemical dialogue less powerful than merely preachy. Yet the characters in The Normal Heart were all real people who struggled and died during the earliest years of the AIDS crisis, and whom Kramer organized with, argued with, alienated, but also loved deeply. The real grace of his play lies, then, in the careful balance he strikes between facts and feelings: this is a man who is chronicling an important history, but who experienced that history first-hand by watching his friends and lovers die terrifying, inexplicable deaths while doctors wrung their hands, politicians turned their backs, and the media focused their concerns elsewhere. The personal is never not political for Kramer, and vice-versa, and one never gets to take precedent over the other. 

The brilliance of this stellar revival lies in the sum of its parts. The set, which initially looks almost offensively nondescript—the most boring staffroom in the most maddeningly drab, bureaucratic institution you can think of—takes on a touching, increasingly meaningful life of its own. The ever-growing list of AIDS victims’ names, projected between scenes, begins with a list, in large letters, of 41 names on the backdrop at the first blackout. The lettering gets smaller and the list gets longer, and when it takes over the entire theater by the end, you know well that it’s coming, but it delivers like a two-by-four square in the face nonetheless. The direction has actors sitting in darkness watching the action taking place center-stage: ghostly memories and departed souls never stop haunting the living.

The cast has clearly worked hard to follow Kramer’s lead, and thus the actors—all of whom are terrific—strike a careful, respectful balance between the play’s politics and the people who have found themselves mired in it. Individual actors spout exposition or lurch suddenly into lengthy diatribe with regularity in this production, but never at the expense of their characters’ complexity. These people are angry, desperate and real, and the actors never forget that. While I admire Joe Mantello as a director, his interpretation of Ned Weeks makes me realize how much I’ve missed him as an actor: no one can play irritable, irritating, and endearing in quite the way that Mantello can. His habit, here, of keeping one hand jammed in his army-jacket pocket—as if he were afraid of what might happen were he to suddenly release all of the anger he holds so tightly in his fist—was a particularly effective touch. The rest of the cast is equally as strong, but the real revelation for me was John Benjamin Hickey, who, as Ned’s partner, Felix, exhibits a sexy swagger that fades slowly and excruciatingly as time passes, and eventually runs out.

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