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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

 
THE NORMAL HEART
at the Golden

FIRST RESPONDERS
By JESSICA BRANCH

  Lee Pace, Jim Parsons, Joe Mantello and Patrick Breen: Ph/ Joan Marcus

Sometimes it’s hard to believe that 25 years ago AIDS was decimating the gay male population, baffling medical science, and apparently inspiring little more than indifference from the powers-that-be, up to and including a president who was unwilling to say the disease’s name, once it finally had one. This sharp, insightful new production of Larry Kramer’s incendiary play is a bracing reminder of where we’ve all come from and how far we still have to go.

The semi-autobiographical drama chronicles the involvement of writer Ned Weeks (Joe Mantello) in agitating for more time, money and attention for the mysterious epidemic that we’d eventually come to know as AIDS. As more and more of his friends contract the disease and die, Weeks helps found an unnamed organization (which looks very much like Gay Men’s Health Crisis). In the face of inaction from the city (Ed Koch in particular, is called out), the medical establishment, the federal government and, to some extent, the gay community itself, Weeks’ indignation builds. Even as his group makes headway, his confrontational outrage starts to alienate even his friends and allies – with the exception of the equally outspoken Dr. Brookner (a fierce, furious Ellen Barkin), who’s been on the frontlines, treating patients stricken with a disease no one knows anything about.

In the 25 years since it was written, the play has gained historical heft and dramatic power: It’s easier today to understand the context of newly found sexual liberation that made Weeks’ (and Dr. Brookner’s) insistence that curbing the epidemic meant curtailing promiscuous sex such a stark slap in the face. The lines of conflict are clearer from even a slight distance, as are the underlying points of agreement that were often invisible back then. Kramer’s unexpected gift here is that he avoids the brutal polarization such political infighting invites. And in this production, thoughtfully directed by Joel Grey and George C. Wolfe, Kramer’s understanding clearly extends well beyond Weeks’, as the playwright paints these stand-ins for his former friends and allies with clarity and compassion.

Mantello is pitch-perfect as the conviction-filled Weeks, whose clarity of vision is undermined by his impaired, conflicted ability to deal with either friends or antagonists. The play, like history, leaves no doubt that he’s right – but he’ll never be president, even of the organization he founded. Although Weeks, with his dually-charged engine of neurosis-driven need to be, as he himself says, an asshole, and his genuine frustrated compassion, is unquestionably the protagonist, and even the hero of this drama, his friends cum antagonists also get their due, both from the script and from this production. Steel magnolia Tommy Boatright (Jim Parsons) is strong, sympathetic and sharp-tongued, while Citibank vice president and the organization figurehead Bruce Niles (Lee Pace) exemplifies the weekend do-gooder – until in one of the play’s many wrenching monologues (every character seems to get one, but they’re nonetheless effective), he tells about taking his dying lover to Florida. But it’s Ned’s unlikely lover, the New York Times style reporter Felix Turner (John Benjamin Hickey) who provides the sharpest foil to Weeks, particularly in their early courtship, where the two warily circle one another until they realize that it’s not the poised journalist who’s the real cynic.

The play today is more clearly not just about an individual or institutional power struggles, but an era’s inadequate response to an epidemic and the needless deaths it caused. Nor is Kramer willing to allow any complacency about our progress since the play was written. To drive the message home, after the play, Kramer himself has been passing out letters to the departing audience to remind us of how far the fight against AIDS still has to go. “Please know that all effort at prevention and education continue their unending record of abject failure,” he writes, pointing out to the still-climbing statistics, both here and in other countries. If we have grown inured to living with a plague, Larry Kramer, like his play’s hero, is still determined to waken us to the reality, whether it’s inside the theater or out.

 


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