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A CurtainUp Review
The Normal Heart
By Elyse Sommer
Now, twenty-one years and some 25 million H.I.V./AIDS deaths later, and with the world wide infection peril escalating rather than abating, a first class revival has opened at the same Anspacher Theater under the auspices of the Worth Street Theater Company. This Normal Heart no longer shocks audiences as it did twenty years ago. The author's score settling with the Gay Men's Health Crisis organization and Mayor Koch and his administration does make for a somewhat dated flavor — but it doesn't matter. The Normal Heart still has the power to move audiences to tears (it did this reviewer!). Unlike so many agitprop dramas which tend to be of the moment, this one lives on as a full-blown tragedy which is, unfortunately, relevant not only vis-à-vis the H.I.V./AIDS plague but the added parallels to world issues that cry for leaders unafraid to speak out.
Except for some minor line changes in several of the sixteen scenes, and the combination of the London and 1985 version of the Act 2, scene 8 in Dr. Emma Brookner's apartment, this revival is basically unchanged. Though I have vivid memories of my reaction to the original, details of that productions are a little fuzzy so I'll refrain from further comparisons. Suffice it to say that the playwright, who has been very involved with this remounting, should be happy with the cast and David Esbornjonson's direction. For sure, the audience at the performance I attended was pleased enough to applaud vigorously at the end of each scene — understandably so since the stage was alive throughout with humor, sadness and red-hot passion. What's more, the highly charged marriage scene, as well as the several references to same sex marriage, come across as almost uncannily prescient.
For anyone unfamiliar with the plot, a nutshell summary: Ned Weeks, the central character, is a stand-in for the author during the period between May 1981 and July 1984 when AIDS exploded from a health scare with a two digit death rate to a plague of frightening proportions and Kramer was a passionate and often frustrated activist founder of the Gay Men's Health Crisis. The story of Ned's disagreements with the other members of the organization and the the officials at City Hall is concurrent with his first ever intense love affair with a New York Times fashion and style reporter named Felix Turner. Felix is a fictionalized version of an unidentified Times reporter with whom Kramer had a romance. Another important activist whose anger and frustration matches Ned's, is a character named Dr. Emma Brookner. She is modeled on Dr. Linda Laubenstein of New York University Center who, like Emma, was victim of another plague, polio.
Rául Esparza renders a very fine portrayal of Ned Weeks, at first a tad less abrasive than his role model, but nevertheless very persuasive. Joanna Gleason and Billy Warlock are enormously touching as Dr. Emma and Felix Turner respectively. As the beneficiary of some of Kramer's best comic touches, Gleason is also very funny. She's also very fine when she steps out of her abrasive persona long enough for a wonderful scene with Ned during which he gets her out of her wheelchair to attempt a dance.
Other notable performances come from Richard Bekins as Ned's successful older brother Ben, Mark Dobies as Bruce Niles, a still closeted bank executive, and Fred Berman as Mickey Marcus who is as another member of the GMHC whom Ned has a hard time persuading about the urgency of the AIDS crisis.
David Esbjornson has seen to it that the cast moves around the more than half a dozen locations without hitting any bumps or slow spots. The cross-cutting scene in which Ned, Bruce and Tommy confront a pompous City Hall official (Jay Russell, who also plays several other roles) as Emma discusses Felix's diagnosis with him is particularly stunning — with Emma and Felix frozen in the circle of the men at City Hall. So is Felix's enraged outburst which leaves the stage in a chaotic mess for the last three scenes, a dynamic symbol of the devastation wreaked by AIDS. Tony Meola's sound design and Ken Billington's lighting add to the craftsmanship of the production.
With Tony Kushner's Angels In America fantasia recently gaining new attention through its widely publicized film, the time is indeed ripe to see The Normal Heart's pulsing agitprop heart beat once again. More than any of the attempts to use the theater as a way to understand the explosive world we live in, this new-old play proves that political theater is alive and well. Don't miss it.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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