Theater: The Normal Heart Still Burns

I thought the last New York revival of The Normal Heart (back in 2004 with Raul Esparza) would establish once and for all how Larry Kramer's play stacked up as a work of art rather than the fiery agitprop it so clearly functions as on one level. The audience at this star-studded revival cheered every speech and laughed at every skewering of a thinly veiled Ed Koch as if it were 1985. AIDS is still with us and still incurable, of course. But it's more than that.

The Normal Heart now speaks to that universal sense of outrage and frustration one can feel on any overwhelming topic. Even the worst Depression since the 1930s and criminal plundering of Wall Street that goes unpunished can't measure up to a plague that has killed tens of millions people worldwide. Yet the anger they provoke, the feeling of helplessness they engender can be just as debilitating. The answer Kramer would surely say is not to take solace in the fact that it's happened before but to take action and make certain it doesn't happen again. He helped found Gay Men's Health Crisis and Act Up. What will you do?

You can start by getting inspired during the current, straightforward revival of the show featuring an all-star cast directed by Joel Grey & George C. Wolfe. It employs a simple white set with text on the walls, including quotes from the crisis and eventually displays of names of the dead. They start with dozens on the back wall and ultimately countless names cover every surface out into the theater in a manner that never fails to chill and break your heart.

The story is just as straightforward. New Yorker Ned Weeks (Joe Mantello) is scared and angry. His friends are dropping like flies and nobody seems to care. He meets a doctor who is overwhelmed with patients, almost exclusively gay at this point, suffering from a plague, the most virulent disease she's ever seen. She too rails against the indifference of the city and the state and the federal government. She pushes Weeks to do something, anything and he channels his natural gift for combativeness and truth-telling into helping to form a group. They need to combat a medical disaster, take care of the sick and dying, answer phone calls from all over the country placed by scared and confused people, push the mayor into taking action, convince gay men they should take a time-out from sex and try not to give in to despair as the funerals become so prolific you can barely catch your breath.

The show is done simply and directly. As a call to arms, it remains one of the most potent works of polemic since The Cradle Will Rock. As theater, it offers some exceptional monologues and just as many opportunities for actors to declaim their speeches rather than perform them.

Ellen Barkin falls into this trap in her long overdue Broadway debut. She begins at a peak of white hot anger and remains there. It draws applause -- especially when Dr. Brookner condemns the medical establishment in her final display of righteous disgust -- but it would have been more effective if she'd built to that explosion.

Lee Pace -- the delightful star of the late, lamented TV series Pushing Daisies -- has the passive role of Bruce, the handsome but closeted face of GMHC in its early days who is willing to work within the system. It's a tricky role he doesn't quite nail until Bruce is telling the story of trying to take his lover home on an airline trip to die with the man's mother. It's a pin-drop moment he handles with grace; here's hoping he carves out time for more theater soon.

Jim Parsons of The Big Bang Theory is having a blast in his Broadway debut as Tommy Boatwright, the Southern queen who keeps peace among all the head-butting personalities of a volunteer organization drowning in sorrow and anger. Parsons gets many of the best lines but he doesn't treat them as jokes, he treats them just as Tommy's natural warm-hearted way of getting through life.

John Benjamin Hickey shines of course as the dying Felix Turner, the New York Times reporter who somehow falls for the lovable train wreck that is Ned Weeks. And most welcome of all is Mantello, making his return to acting for the first time since Angels In America. The theater gained a great director but lost a terrific actor, as he proves here. Mantello rightly offers Ned in all his needy, desperate, intelligent, angry glory. He never tries to win the audience over; he just wants you to face the truth.

The truth is that this is not a definitive production of The Normal Heart, for all its passion. The play will always be a landmark work of theater and essential viewing for inspiring political action. But where it ranks as drama is a question that will have to wait for another calmer day, a day when rage and frustration and piercing honesty in the face of a crisis doesn't turn you into a pariah. Apparently, that day is a long way off.

NOTE: If you go to the show or just walk by the theater around the time of final bows, make sure you pick up flyers handed out by volunteers. They offer a letter from Larry Kramer that spells out exactly where we are today in fighting this plague and some personal notes about the real people the story is about that will move you. In one of those happy coincidences, I was walking out as the volunteers said, "A letter from Larry Kramer; a letter from Larry Kramer" when the audience left. Then one of them said, "A note from you to you" and I turned and there was Kramer himself, smiling over the joke and accepting compliments from theater-goers and just as interested as ever in keeping the focus on the cause.

THE 2010-2011 THEATER SEASON (ratings on a four star system)

Angels in America revival at Signature *** out of ****
Anything Goes ** 1/2
Arcadia with Billy Crudup *** 1/2
Baby It's You * 1/2
Being Harold Pinter ** 1/2
Bengal Tiger At The Baghdad Zoo **
Between Worlds/Entre Mundos * 1/2
Beautiful Burnout at St. Ann's Warehouse **
Blood From A Stone ** 1/2
Born Yesterday ***
The Broadway Musicals Of 1921 at Town Hall ***
Cactus Flower *
Catch Me If You Can *** 1/2
Devil Boys From Beyond **
The Diary Of A Madman with Geoffrey Rush at BAM ***
Die Walkure at the Met with Deborah Voigt ***
The Divine Sister *** 1/2
Double Falsehood **
The Dream Of The Burning Boy ** 1/2
Driving Miss Daisy **
Elf *
Elling **
A Free Man Of Color ** 1/2
Gatz ***
Ghetto Klown ***
Good People with Frances McDormand **
The Grand Manner **
The Great Game ***
Gruesome Playground Injuries ***
The Hallway Trilogy: Nursing **
The Hallway Trilogy: Paraffin ***
The Hallway Trilogy: Rose ***
How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying ***
The Importance Of Being Earnest ** 1/2
The Interminable Suicide Of Gregory Church *** 1/2
Jerusalem ***
John Gabriel Borkman * 1/2
La Bete ** 1/2
Les Miserables ***
Lombardi **
Macbeth with John Douglas Thompson **
The Merchant Of Venice *** 1/2
Middletown ***
Mike Birbiglia's My Girlfriend's Boyfriend ***
The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore *
Mistakes Were Made ** 1/2
The Motherf**ker With The Hat ***
Nixon In China *** 1/2
The New York Idea **
The Nightingale and Other Short Fables at BAM ***
The Normal Heart ***
Other Desert Cities **
Our Town with Helen Hunt ***
The Pee-wee Herman Show ***
Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert: The Musical * 1/2
The Road To Qatar *
Room ***
The Scottsboro Boys ****
Sister Act **
Sleep No More *** 1/2
Small Craft Warnings zero stars
Three Sisters (w Maggie Gyllenhaal and Peter Sarsgaard) *** 1/2
Timon Of Athens at Public with Richard Thomas ***
War Horse ***
We're Gonna Die ***
The Whipping Man **
Wings **
Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown **
Wonderland *

Blood Ties ***
Fellowship * 1/2
Fingers and Toes ** 1/2
Frog Kiss *** 1/2
The Great Unknown ** 1/2
Nighttime Traffic **
Our Country *
PopArt *
Shine! The Horatio Alger Musical ** 1/2
Show Choir **
Tess: The New Musical **
Trav'lin' ***
Without You *** 1/2

*****
Thanks for reading. Michael Giltz is the cohost of Showbiz Sandbox, a weekly pop culture podcast that reveals the industry take on entertainment news of the day and features top journalists and opinion makers as guests. It's available free on iTunes. Visit Michael Giltz at his website and his daily blog. Download his podcast of celebrity interviews and his radio show, also called Popsurfing and also available for free on iTunes. Link to him on Netflix and gain access to thousands of ratings and reviews.

Note: Michael Giltz was provided with tickets to this show with the understanding that he would be writing a review.