"The Normal Heart" -see it before it closes 10 July!

The new production of Larry Kramer's powerful 1985 play The Normal Heart, currently in a limited engagement run on Broadway at the Golden Theatre, is a great piece of theater and well worth your snapping into action to get tickets before it closes on 10 July. This generally autobiographical piece chronicles the period between July 1981 and May 1984 in New York--when the AIDS epidemic was beginning to manifest itself, but when the public awareness of it was being denied and repressed. Nancy and I saw The Normal Heart last evening, and I am going to make this Culture Alert brief, as I want to get it out quickly to encourage those of you who may not have been aware of it to act quickly while you still have the opportunity to get to see it.

This production is a grippingly successful experience that feels very current and relevant, even though it could have been a mere period piece. It was originally produced a year after the terrifying period it depicts, and yet the emotions and issues seem uncomfortably contemporary.

Joe Mantello, who is more known for his directing these days (but who was part of the original Broadway cast of Angels in America), plays the lead role of Ned Weeks, the character modeled on the author himself, as he becomes aware of the fact that his gay friends are beginning to die from a strange disease. As he becomes increasingly involved in the growing tragedy of the epidemic that will eventually be called AIDS, he attempts to get people to generate an appropriately effective response. With his eloquence and fiery temper, he inveighs against all those who are refusing to acknowledge the existence of the epidemic and who are refusing to act in ways necessary to deal with it. Although he succeeds in founding the Gay Men's Health Crisis, he is met with heavy resistance on all fronts--the medical establishment, the governments of the City of New York (and specifically Mayor Ed Koch) and of the United States, the traditional media (and specifically the New York Times), and from virtually every faction in the gay community itself. But this is not a play merely of political invective: it is also built around Ned's emotionally charged journey and his moving character development on both political and personal fronts.

Mantello's performance is nothing short of amazing: while potently politically expressive, it is also intensely human and personal. His acting is wonderfully supported by the profoundly effective performance of John Benjamin Hickey as Felix Turner, a style and fashion writer at the NY Times who manages to penetrate Ned's protectively off-putting fašade and eventually becomes his lover. Most of the other performances are more than adequate to make the production work, though none on the level of excellence of Mantello and Hickey. The only performance I found problematic was that of Ellen Barkin as Dr. Emma Brookner, the physician who was among the earliest to be treating AIDS patients in NYC. As much as I wanted to like her performance, it was a so incessantly staccato expression of angry emotion at an essentially unmodulatedly high level that I found it both annoying and detracting from the overall power of the play.

The Normal Heart was very ably directed by Joel Grey (who played Ned Weeks in the original 1985 production of the play at the Public) and George C. Wolfe (who was artistic director of the Public Theater from 1993-2004).

David Rockwell's scenery was an enormously positive and effective contribution to the success of the play. It was extraordinarily minimalist: it consisted of three white sides of a cube that contained all the action of the play. It appeared to be white brick, but, upon closer examination, one becomes aware that the texture of the walls is actually created by an arrangement of three-dimensional words--some quotes, some dates, some key phrases--all relating to the early years of the AIDS crisis. As the play and the epidemic progress, lists of the names of the dead are projected onto the wall--and, of course, the lists becoming longer at an alarming rate. It is movingly effective in the most simple and fundamental of ways.

This is a well-directed, well-acted production of an unusually good piece of writing. There are moments that become somewhat talky and preachy, but they are actually quite few, which is quite an achievement in a work that has so much important political content it is delivering. It succeeds, however, because Mr. Kramer has written a human drama in which the political messages are contained--not a political tract with some added human content.

I'd suggest you see it...and, if at all possible, try to get good seats when you do, as the play is deeply personal, and therefore the action is best appreciated up close. And remember: this limited engagement close on 10 July, so you'll have to act fast!

Tickets are available from Telecharge ( www.telecharge.com/BehindTheCurtain.aspx?prodid=8459).

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