The most poignant character of Larry Kramer’s incendiary The Normal Heart appears silently throughout the action: the growing count of AIDS victims. Character, perhaps, provides an insufficient descriptor, but the presence of this trail of death (41 as of 1981 to today’s count of 35 million) projected on the darkened set at intervals, permeates the play with the resonance of those lost. By the end of the show, the relentless of the disease takes over the front of the theater as the magnitude of the names overwhelms the audience.
Death may saturate this show, but it is the vividness of love and friendship, in all of its foibles, that provides the heart of the play. The story, based on the playwright’s early days as an AIDS activist, follows Ned Weeks (Joe Mantello) as he tries to grapple with a disease few want to address and no one understands. Although charismatic and intelligent, Week’s no-holds-barred passion for the cause alienates those unwilling to match his fervor. Mantello shows us this duality beautifully, overtaking the stage with magnetic earnestness as he first organizes his AIDS awareness group; later turning strident and angry, a performance full of frenetic gesticulations, as ideologies clash. “Of course, we have to tell people how to live,” he insists to his friends. Ned wants AIDS stopped at whatever expense. Others, more afraid of losing their jobs, their status, and other things, want to remain under the radar. For instance, Bruce Niles (Lee Pace), who sports the good looks of a Marlboro man, won’t go on Dan Rather to represent the group—an opportunity Ned can’t understand missing. Moments like this send Ned into hair-pulling diatribes as he continually attempts to seize every possible moment to publicize the viciousness of this worldwide plague. For him, there is only black and white.
The polemic script has the potential to seem more lecture than story but it is the relationships that elevate this play into a visceral expose that leaves audience members crying at the end. There’s a real poignancy in the coupling of Felix Turner (John Benjamin Hickey) and Ned, from the awkward initial embraces to the fear of losing one another as the disease progresses. Ned’s brother, Ben (Mark Harelik), struggles with Ned’s homosexuality and as a consequence words never spoken aloud cloud their camaraderie—something that hurts both of them. Directed by George C. Wolfe and Joel Grey, who played Ned Weeks in the original version, the show contains the Broadway debuts of Jim Parsons (Sheldon on TV’s “The Big Bang Theory”) and movie actress Ellen Barkin, who plays the no-nonsense wheelchair-bound Dr. Emma Brookner with tart preciseness. Parson excels as well, bringing top-notch comic timing and an impish grin to Tommy Boatwright. The amazing set by David Rockwell offers a flexible landscape, moving from the bricklike texture of a hospital to the Venetian blinds of Ben Week’s law firm with a mere readjustment of light (designed by David Weiner). Near the end of the play, an audience of spectators join the main cast onstage, with characters such as Emma and Ben, sitting in shadow observing the action, a symbol of all those, perhaps, who merely watched themselves. The 12-week run ends July 10.
(Purchased ticket, ORCH, row L, seat 101)