It’s hard to believe that a quarter century has passed since the first performance of Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart, a searing, rage-filled cri de coeur from the front lines of the early battle against AIDS. Kramer’s early-’80s-set polemic against New York City mayor Ed Koch, federal public-health officials, Ronald Reagan, The New York Times, intolerant straights, and closeted gays has lost none of its rawness in the new star-studded Broadway revival running through July 10.
At the heart of the new production, directed by Joel Grey and George C. Wolfe, is a subtle and superb performance by Joe Mantello, the star of the original Angels in America who’s won great acclaim in recent years as a Tony-winning director (Assassins, Take Me Out). As Ned Weeks, Kramer’s alter ego and the cofounder of an organization that’s very much like the real-life Gay Men’s Health Crisis, Mantello is assigned most of the show’s instigating and onstage rants. But Mantello manages to give his lines a degree of nuance and variation so that he’s not always speaking in all-capital letters. Rest assured, Mantello’s Ned is still pushy, impolitic, and prickly. But he also seems wholly human and sympathetic for all his surface abrasiveness — and convinces you that a closeted-at-work hunk like Felix (John Benjamin Hickey) might actually fall for him.
The rest of the cast is equally strong. Lee Pace (Pushing Daisies) is a standout as the closeted banker Bruce Niles, who butts heads with Ned because he wants to work within the system for change, and Jim Parsons (The Big Bang Theory) is suitably fey as Tommy Boatwright, a hospital administrator and self-proclaimed ”Southern bitch.” And in her Broadway debut, Ellen Barkin acquits herself well as wheelchaired physician Emma Brookner — though she gets a little shrill in a late speech calling for more AIDS research funds.
The Normal Heart lingers as a time capsule of a bygone era, not only when there was so much confusion and fear about what AIDS was and how it was spread (could you catch it by kissing?) but also when artists still thought political activism could be channeled through speeches or even a full-length work of theater. Today’s agitprop is perhaps best expressed in 140 characters or less.
Twitter-like brevity and restraint have never been Kramer’s strong suits, and in The Normal Heart he gives free rein to all of his impulses, whims, arguments, and counterarguments about the institutional forces he believes were too slow to react to a looming epidemic that felled many of his friends. (Always one to demand the last word, the playwright is distributing a one-page letter to audiences as they exit the theater, calling for more efforts to eradicate AIDS as an ongoing ”worldwide plague.”) This is not a great play, to be honest. There is too much speechifying by characters who are too easily interchangeable. But as a chronicle of a historical moment, The Normal Heart still packs a serious emotional wallop. B+
(Tickets: Telecharge.com or 800-432-7250)