Monday, May 23, 2011

'THE NORMAL HEART' MADE ME WANT TO THROW UP -- 'The Normal Heart' on Broadway

'The Normal Heart' made me want to throw up. Vomit. Puke. Hurl. And no, that is not hyperbole. 'The Normal Heart' actually caused me to feel physically ill. Walking around with the determination and awareness of a melancholic ghost after the performance, my body, heart, and mind were all at a communicative disconnect. I couldn't hold back the occasional convulsion, the heavy inhale, or the escaped tear. What I had just been bombarded by was grotesque, squirm-inducing, disgusting, inhumane behavior that I do not understand and will likely never understand. But, by far, the most painful aspect of Larry Kramer's play, which is essentially dramatized AIDS propaganda, (albeit stripped of propaganda's typically negative connotations) is that all the bigotry and horrific murder that the play depicts is still going on, and even worse, it is accepted apathetically by people on both sides of the issue.

And that is why 'The Normal Heart' is essential to here and now. Ambivalence, misinformation, and ignorance surrounding AIDS is rampant, and unlike the 1980's when information was scarce and misguided theories ran amuck, today being uninformed is inexcusable. Larry Kramer knows this, and that is in large part why this revival is happening. To reinforce the issue's enormity to young people, Kramer and the producers even went so far as to offer discounted seating to any patron under the age of thirty for the May 26th performance.

Before this production, 'The Normal Heart' had always left a foul taste in my mouth. Textually it exudes an icy chill because the issues discussed tend to outshine the people onstage. The content is so bogged down with statistics and numbers that you'd need a treasure map to uncover the buried humanity. But what's onstage at the Golden Theatre is completely and utterly human. It breathes and feels as strongly as any audience member. This beautiful and harsh revival changed my perception of the play's structure, and really informed me of the script's inherent strength.

Let's dissect this Normal Heart. The first act, which we will call the "right atrium" is akin to an emotion-heavy Power Point presentation, complete with gratuitous and kitschy projections. The tragic backstory, facts, and numbers of the AIDS crisis are expressed using the characters as information vehicles. The first half, experienced alone, comes off as disrespectful, reducing a gargantuan epidemic to a smattering of loud statistics the same way a history book's chapter on the Bubonic Plague might. It sounds drab, and in many ways it is. But 'The Normal Heart' is very much the sum of its parts - and Act Two, the "left atrium" is nothing short of titanic in power. The play is a smidgeon like 'Erin Brockovich' or 'MILK' (however both succeeded 'The Normal Heart'). It follows a group of gay activists, advocating for AIDS money and research during a time where no one knew what it was, and the President stubbornly refused to publicly acknowledge its existence. During Act two, the issue hits home as friends die, and millions of people are infected, yet there is still no government intervention. In order for the second act to be both intrusively private and entirely universal, the first act NEEDS to be one big expositional statistic. Duh. I swear on my iPhone 4 - as the audience walked out of the theatre, it looked and felt like a funeral procession. Hell. It was a funeral procession.

'The Normal Heart' has many a strong and healthy artery among its fiery ensemble, lead by a surprisingly amiable Joe Mantello as activism leader, Ned Weeks. I only say "surprisingly" because the character's loud, 'take no prisoners' methodology might be a turn-off to some, but Mantello's quiet, fidgety Ned is consistently lovable and always understood. Mantello's work is gut-wrenchingly honest, and never more so than as his lover, Felix (played with epic bravery by John Benjamin Hickey) is rapidly weakened by AIDS, are the young people in audience completely and shockingly aware that Mantello, much of the acting company, and even many members of the audience watched their own friends and partners die that same, dehumanizing death.
Ellen Barkin, (Dr. Brookner) making her Broadway debut has arguably the strongest moment of the 'The Normal Heart'. In a speech of condemnation against government doctors, she speaks with greater conviction, charisma, and energy than Barack Obama at the height of his presidential campaign. A feat, indeed.

In a letter from Larry Kramer, handed to audience members at the end of the performance, the playwright reveals that most of his original Public Theatre cast sadly died of AIDS as well. One such cast member that is still with us is this revival's director, Joel Grey (yes, that Joel Grey). Grey replaced Brad Davis as Ned Weeks during the original run, and with this new production, Grey honors the memory of those fallen actors. His direction (along with supervising direction by George C. Wolfe) is subtle, allowing the actors to act, and the words to be heard. That's all he needed to do, and he did it. Easier said than done.

The design is equally as light, with a deceptively bare, white stage. The only substantial physical elements are a plethora of three-dimensional quotes and statistics covering the walls, only visible when properly lit - a cool and cold effect.
The lively sound design employed a cacophony of abrupt club music - the production mourning what they believe gay culture has become thanks, in part, the the sexual revolution of the sixties. I, myself, am all a jumble on Kramer's and the production's dream of a unique gay identity. I am not quite sure how to feel about it, which is simultaneously unnerving and exhilarating. The entire production has that effect.

While I was meandering around post-performance, I was so scared. I thought about calling my family, my close friends, and other loved ones to warn them - make them think twice about what...or who they do, but I just couldn't bring myself to call. And it was at that moment that I wholly understood the plight of Ned Weeks, and vicariously Larry Kramer - the story is auto-biographical. In a culture so entrenched in stubbornness and individual identity, how can any one person make a positive change? I am doing my part by writing these words. Or at least I hope I am. See this play if you can; read it if you can't. And always, always, always remember the past - as painful as it might be - to ensure a brighter future for those you love.-Johnny Oleksinski

'The Normal Heart' plays Broadway's Golden Theatre.