Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Normal Heart

Joel Grey and George C. Wolfe's revival of The Normal Heart, Larry Kramer's impassioned look at the beginning of the AIDS crisis in the U.S. and his frustrated efforts to shut it down, left me speechless and openly weeping. I can count on two hands the number of times art has made me teary, much less cry. Joe Mantello as the leading crusader was really great and made an overly showy role so real. But it's Ellen Barkin's (well-deserved) Tony-winning performance as a NYC doctor treating tons of gay men dying from a mysterious, (she suspects) sexually transmitted, illness that really stands out for me. (He was good, but I'm not convinced John Benjamin Hickey gave a Tony-worthy performance. I'd rather the award had gone to Mackenzie Crook for Jerusalem.)

I was a mess from the moment Barkin began her blistering speech railing against the CDC--or was it the NIH?--for ignoring her repeated reports of this exploding epidemic for several years, followed by them denying her funding to search for the cause and cure for the as-yet-unnamed plague. I wept from then until almost half an hour after the show ended. I even tear up thinking about it. Seriously, when is the last time you cried just thinking about a performance more than two weeks afterward?

The show is not without flaws. I loved him on Brothers and Sisters, but Luke Macfarlane was pretty disappointing here. And I'm curious about the writing for the character played by Lee Pace (whom I've loved in pretty much every other role, especially on the sadly missed TV show Pushing Daisies). I have a hard time believing an ex-Green Beret would be so nonthreateningly laid-back in the face of such a crisis (and, from a purely physical perspective, so reedy), even if he were so far in the closet. Speaking of the writing, the opening scene is so underwhelming that I wondered if I would like the play at all. The scene at the end in the hospital is predictable and flat to me, too. But the projections of the names of so many people lost to the disease ended the show on a strong note--a punch to the gut, really. The phrase is overused and generally hyperbolic, but in this case I think there truly was hardly a dry eye in the house (including among the cast).

I could go on about how cool David Rockwell's deceptively simple stark-white-walls set design is once David C. Weiner's lighting design reveals what's hiding there. Or how much I loved seeing The Big Bang Theory's Jim Parsons in a touchy-feely (handsy, really) role, aka decidedly un-Sheldon. Instead, I will tell you why this show hits me so hard every time I think of it.

The true brilliance of this production is that it makes me want to go out and change the world for the better. It makes me want to quit everything else in my life and take up a cause (it makes a very good case for AIDS activism--which 30 years later is, depressingly, still very needed--but there are plenty enough causes to go around). Really, when is the last time a play made you want to be a better person? (Ugh, here I am crying about it again.)

I love that at the beginning of the show's run, Kramer himself stood outside the theater and handed out this letter to make people think about the real-life events depicted in the play--to make sure they saw it as more than art, as the crisis it was and still is. I love that the show has had talk-backs and discounts for young theater-goers. I love that Ellen Barkin is such a fierce advocate for the message of the play. You should find video of her Tony acceptance speech and read this interview with her. Here's an excerpt:
What about this piece grabbed you?
I just think it’s too important not to do. It was very important that this play that was such a watershed theatrical moment finally be on Broadway, and to be a spear-carrier for Larry Kramer in the war he’s been fighting for a lifetime is an honor and a privilege for me. And the addition of [co-director] George Wolfe is like, well now we’re just in Geniusville, USA, as far as I’m concerned.

You were in New York acting off-Broadway in the early ‘80s; does the play bring back memories of that time for you?
Absolutely. You cannot help but completely relive the terror and horror of what was going on then. I look at the first 41 names of AIDS victims that come up [on the set of The Normal Heart], and I had a friend on that list. It is a real, visceral remembrance of that terror. There are maybe two generations of human brings who really don’t think AIDS is an issue anymore, and it’s bad. It's bad and that’s in part because of what happened at the beginning, that it was never identified as the plague it was and still is, and then it morphed into what it is now, a huge money-making machine for the pharmaceutical companies.

You seem like perfect casting for this crusader of a woman.
It’s true. When people ask me, “How do you get up the rage every night?” I say, well sometimes I just listen to the play and other times I wake up in the morning, turn on my TV and watch my president hand over his birth certificate. Where do I get my rage? It’s free-floating, it’s blowing in the wind, it’s everywhere. It’s the perfect climate for these words to be heard.



  1. John Benjamin Hickey absolutely deserved his Tony. Mackenzie Crook/ Jerusalem did absolutely nothing for me.

  2. I have no problems with JBH's performance. But when I was watching it, it never occurred to me that he would get nominated. So, no complaints but no raves from me on his performance. His acceptance speech, however, was beautiful. And I'm so glad for any attention the show got.

    I thought Crook gave a nicely nuanced performance in an otherwise overblown production. I've loved all three roles that I've seen Mark Rylance in, but I still think La Bete was the performance of his more worth of the Tony this year (even though I hated the show). There was a lot I liked about Jerusalem, but I didn't love it, and I felt that I missed the point of a lot of it.

  3. I adore Lee Pace but had the same problems with him that you did. I saw Patrick Wilson in the role, and his second act speech left me almost as devastated as Emma's CDC scene. With Pace it felt calculated But jeezum crow, what a show.

  4. It's interesting how people can have such different reactions. I was on the verge of tears for much of The Normal Heart but the first time I really sobbed was during Lee Pace's monologue. It just really hit me hard.

    And I would have given the Tony to Joe Mantello over Mark Rylance. His performance was so brilliantly modulated - anger, frustration, humor. It was intense and enthralling to the point where it was jarring to see him as "himself" at the stage door.

    What got to me, even more than the deaths and the indifference, as horrific as those things were, was the fear. People were so deeply closeted and afraid to be who they were. It was palpable and heartbreaking.

    Just an unforgettable experience.

  5. I feel like Rylance really won the Tony for the combination of his performances in La Bete and Jerusalem. I still think he was better in La Bete, but if they had nominated him for that show, he wouldn't have won because people generally didn't like the show. Joe Mantello was fantastic in Heart, but it was just Rylance's year. I mean, two amazing performances. Two exhausting, balls-to-the-wall, amazing performances in one year.

    I do wish this show were still running. In another 3 months or so, I *might* have been recovered enough to go see it again. I hope it catches on regionally. I mean, enough with Rent already, right?

  6. I know this is so old, but you just posted it and I just read it for the first time. I am so impressed by you. A lot of times we see shows and think we want to do better because of them, but how many people actually do? Seriously, good for you. But as Esther said, it's interesting how people can see the same show and have such different reactions. I actually loved Lee Pace and everyone in the show except Barkin. She screamed all her lines and didn't do much for me. I had to go back and see who she was nominated against and I would have given it to Elizabeth Rodriguez.

    1. Thanks, Linda! Here was my follow-up post about it how I changed my life after seeing the show.

      Perhaps I can't be objective about Barkin's performance because of how much I missed feeling that kind of passion for my work. I think the crusaders I know DO yell a lot, though, because it's impossible for them to tamp down on their indignation.

      Also, I really hated The Motherfucker with the Hat, so that's a no for me. And the only other show I saw in that category was La Bete, and I think Joanna Lumley was just nominated because people loved Ab Fab.