There were several ways I considered approaching writing this review. One idea was to simply to write the word "exceptional" over and over again. Other words that came to mind were "shattering," "moving" and, sadly, "timely."
However it is probably best to handle this in a traditional format.
Larry Kramer's The Normal Heart, which opened last night on Broadway...wait a minute, let's put this in perspective. The Normal Heart, a play that has become an irreplaceable piece of not just gay theatrical canon but of theatrical canon in general, had its Broadway opening last night a full twenty years after it was first produced off-Broadway. It has taken that long for this brutally honest yet achingly heartfelt play to finally make its way to the Great White Way.
Putting aside a discussion of the reasons behind this long delay, let me just say that it is about damn time. And how wonderful that this long awaited debut is in a production as solid and transcendent as the one now playing at the Golden Theatre. Uniformly the cast is magnificent, and considering that they had, I think, only two weeks of rehearsal to pull this all together, it is a miracle that the end result is as top-notch as it is. Employing the cliche "a labor of love" may not be out of place here.
Kudos first and foremost must go the directing team of Joel Grey and George C. Wolfe who have gathered this ensemble and woven them, along with a spare yet powerfully effective production design, into the theatrical equivalent of an arrow, no a laser beam, to the heart. The action is perfectly paced and the directors have drawn standout performances from the entire cast.
That cast is led by Joe Mantello making a rare foray back to the stage after an extremely successful career as a stage director including such hits as Wicked and Take Me Out. His portrayal of the prickly and ostensibly unlikable Ned Weeks (the stand-in character for Larry Kramer himself) is brilliantly nuanced, allowing for the humanity to shine through a part that could easily descend into shrillness and hyperbole. Mantello's Ned both revels in and recoils from his inability to control his rage and terror as the plague of AIDS erupts through his circle of friends and the larger gay community. You never lose sight of the human trying to find solid ground as it is repeatedly yanked out from under him.
As Ned's lover Felix Turner, John Benjamin Hickey is heart-breaking as he first battles to create love and a life with Ned and then battles to simply hold onto his dignity as the plague threatens to swallow him up. Astonishingly making her Broadway debut, Ellen Barkin expertly balances the humor, anger and frustration of Dr. Emma Brookner, the physician shouting vainly into the wind about the advancing devastation that has begun to overwhelm her as her case load multiplies daily. Her near-breakdown late in the second act practically stops the show. It would be unfair to reduce the performance of Lee Pace (Pushing Daisies) as Bruce Niles, the closeted co-chair of the gay advocacy group that Ned founds, to "he is stunning" but damn it if he isn't all that and a bag of chips. But he is also brilliant in his portrayal of Bruce's stubborn resistance to bringing both himself and the organization into the glare of publicity, which contrasts magnificently with a deeply vulnerable monologue he gives in the second act.
But wait, there's more. The delightful Patrick Breen provides a deeply multi-faceted performance as the conflicted Mickey Marcus, a fellow activist who's identity is so tied to the concept of free love that the idea of promoting sexual responsibility is almost as terrifying to him as the threat of AIDS. Jim Parson (The Big Bang Theory) is both moving and endearing as Tommy Boatwright, another activist who is equal parts Southern Belle, fierce bitch and peacemaker. He sparkles in his scenes and his comic timing is pitch-perfect, making his sudden forays into poignancy all that more moving. Mark Harelik as Ben Weeks, Ned's straight brother, is also excellent and you will have to forgive me because I am running out of superlatives. Luke McFarlance (Brothers and Sisters), Richard Topol and Wayne Alan Wilcox also shine in multiple roles. No really, they are wonderful and funny and moving and all that good stuff, too.
David Rockwell's austere white box set and David Weiner's spare and sharp lighting design compliment each other perfectly to create a sense of claustrophobic menace. They are enhanced by Batwin + Robin Productions projection design that provides several chilling stage tableaus. Martin Pakledinaz's simple and accurate costumes take us expertly back to those dark days of 1980's New York and David Van Tieghem's original music and sound design adds a haunting aural mood to complete the piece.
Needless to say, this is not a production to miss. Even if you have seen this play before, you have not seen it before on Broadway with this cast in this setting. More so this story remains vital because the story it tells still has no ending. As the flyers (authored by Mr. Kramer himself) that volunteers passed out to audience members as they exited the theater note, the tragic history of the AIDS plague continues to unfold in neglect by the government, self-interest by the pharmaceutical industry, and ineffectiveness by prevention and education efforts. With at least 75 million infected and 35 million dead, The Normal Heart tells a story that is as fresh and powerful as it was twenty years ago.