Sunday, July 3, 2011

Review: 'The Normal Heart' Beats at the Golden Theatre

Lee Pace, Ellen Barkin, Wayne Alan Wilcox, Patrick Breen, Jim Parsons,
Joe Mantello, John Benjamin Hickey, Luke Macfarlane, Richard Topol
and Mark Harelik. (Production Photos: Joan Marcus)
Ellen Barkin
One would wonder if author Larry Kramer’s ‘The Normal Heart’ would be a dated product of its time. Guess no more. The 1985 drama has been revived for a new generation. Its subject matter is still relevant today made all the more powerful by the searing performances of the all-star cast especially standouts Joe Mantello and Ellen Barkin.

Set in 1981 New York City, the play focuses on the early years of the AIDS plague and the criminal silence of the political and media powers in addressing the issue. A tight-knit group of friends refuses to let doctors, politicians and the media dismiss the truth of an unspoken epidemic behind a wall of silence.

Joe Mantello
Joel Grey and George C. Wolfe co-directs the actors and Kramer’s script not as a period piece but as a brutal reminder that the struggles and issues continue to today. More recent topics of same-sex marriage adds another dimension to the story. From the start there is a quiet fury brewing as Dr. Emma Brockner (Barkin) sparks a passion in the journalist Ned Weeks (Mantello) to spread the word about an unnamed disease of which she knows no cure inflicting gay men in the city.

The performances by Barkin and Mantello are a contrast of portrayals. Both are equally loud and unwavering in their convictions. Barkin’s portrayal feels passionate and enlightening as in the scene where she expresses her outrage when she is refused a research grant for the disease. Not once throughout the evening is her confinement to a wheelchair because of polio is addressed for sympathy. Mantello’s Weeks is constantly abrasive in his efforts that he alienates the powers as well as the volunteers of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis center which he started and from which he is ousted. His unwillingness to be calm in the face of the adversity reveals a frustration on stage and in the audience. Both Barkin and Mantello deliver individual, bitter and sharp speeches criticizing the apathy towards their efforts and receive the kind of show-stopping applause usually more common for the big number in musicals.

Jim Parsons and Lee Pace
Joe Mantello and John Benjamin Hickey
John Benjamin Hickey
Patrick Breen (of last season’s ‘Next Fall’), Lee Pace (“Pushing Daisies”) and Jim Parsons (“The Big Bang Theory”) are all excellent among the great supporting cast. Each has their moment in the spotlight for an emotional comment on their own various dilemmas with living in the new world of AIDS. Mark Harelik (as Ned’s brother Ben) and John Benjamin Hickey (as Felix and who falls for Ned) have more complex and charged exchanges in separate scenes with Mantello.

The simple set design by David Rockwell and lighting by David Weiner assist to emphasize the story with their starkness. Textured bare white walls progressively come into clearer perspective as projections reveal a short list of those who fell victim to the disease until the full set and proscenium are flooded with the names of the dead.

Yes, the play has not lost its importance and after twenty-five years we realize and are made to remember how much the AIDS crisis and the fight for its support and cure have changed the way many of us think and in the many ways it has impacted our lives.

‘The Normal Heart’ is at the tail-end of a strictly limited 12-week run. Unspectacular initial audience reception is now a near sell-out after its three Tony Award wins including best revival of a play and acting awards for Barkin and Hickey. A percentage of the production’s weekly profits will be donated to a group of dedicated nonprofit organizations.

Lee Pace, Jim Parsons, Joe Mantello and Patrick Breen

Where: John Golden Theatre
Location: 252 West 45th Street, New York City
When: Tue 7pm; Wed-Fri 8pm; Sat 2pm & 8pm; Sun 2pm & 7pm
Running Time: 2 hrs 35 min (one intermission)
Ticket Prices: $26.50-$126.50
Opening: Apr 27, 2011 (previews from Apr 19, 2011)
Closing: July 10, 2011
Book Online:
Book by Phone: 1-800-432-7250

left to right: Luke Macfarlane, Patrick Breen, Ellen Barkin, Jim
Parsons, Joe Mantello, Lee Pace, Richard Topol, John Benjamin
Hickey, Mark Harelik and Wayne Alan Wilcox.


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