Sometimes, during the intermission of a play, my companion for the outing will turn to me and ask, "What is it about theatre that you love so much?" My reply is generally always the same: "Because it is live, right in front of you, happening just as it is this one and only time and you are here witnessing it." This generally leads to the standard what is your favorite show, etc., but usually ends with me saying, "Listen to the rest of the audience. You will hear - and, rarely, not hear - the audience and the play connect when it is really, really good. 'Really, really good' will get a loud hand at the end of a scene. 'Excellent' will get sustained applause that includes 'bravos', whistles and general cheering. But the 'truly extraordinary' will leave an audience so moved and awe struck that whole scenes go by with a deafening silence." I live for those shows that give me all three. It is usually years between them - "truly extraordinary" is still a blessedly rare and life affirming occurrence. And finally, after about two and half years, it happened again. The theatre: The John Golden on Broadway. The show: Larry Kramer's masterwork, The Normal Heart.
Indeed, last Saturday afternoon I was left truly numb to the touch, aching in my soul, and my brain abuzz with so much thought and emotion that I had trouble articulating where I wanted to have dinner, let alone to discuss what I had just seen. And in the intervening days, that ache and buzz may have ebbed, but the occasional wave of emotion will hit me out of nowhere and the experience is all fresh again.
But perhaps the most important reason to see this theatrical masterpiece is the fact that some 25 years later, its author felt compelled to write a letter to his audience declaring that, in fact, everything we had just seen was based entirely on fact, and that the problem is still with us, and that our complacency today is more dangerous than that initial fear-based ignoring of the epidemic; we know it exists and we still aren't demanding more from our government and our health departments, and we, as a community that reaches far beyond New York City and the gay community at large, aren't even taking enough responsibility to take personal precautions. Indeed, I have spoken to many young gay men who think safe sex is a joke, that takes away from the pleasure of sex, and besides, "there are drugs now so you can live with it for a long time." Scary and completely true. The bottom line is that we need The Normal Heart.
The cast of ten is the definition of "ensemble," and is the new standard against which I will compare for seasons to come. It says so much that the two actors with the smallest roles can still move one to tears as both Wayne Alan Wilcox and Luke MacFarlane do, as young victims and activists against this disease, so new that the word AIDS is never uttered. Richard Topol, amongst smaller bits, has the heavy task of being the bad guy twice. First, he is Mayor Koch's assistant, a closeted man himself who righteously defends the official party line that there is no epidemic, claiming that no one is making enough noise to make it worth the bother. Then he is the Examining Doctor, who shuts down the one doctor in New York willing to research the disease, after years of collecting data and not being seen by the CDC. Topol's performance is riveting, and kudos must be given for his ability to take his punishment. With both characters, one could feel the animosity, no, hatred for his characters hitting the stage from the audience.
Jim Parsons, in a terrific Broadway debut, offers the lone bit of humor and often the only voice of realistic reason, in his heartwarming portrayal of Southern sissy Tommy Boatwright. An apt name, it is his calm voice and quick witted charm that more than once keep this big ship of anger from sinking. And there is the striking presence of Lee Pace, who exudes a manly sexiness and a disappointing lack of backbone (until it is almost too late) as Bruce Niles, a semi-closeted banking executive, who becomes, against his will, the leader of the newly formed Gay Men's Health Crisis. His performance is marked by a progressively more intense presence as he at first tries to deal with the hand he is dealt, until he can't take any more brow beating, ridicule and hate from the very people he is trying to represent. His act two monologue takes on the status quo, while he still wants to remain hidden in it, reaping the benefits of the gay sexual agenda without having to take responsibility for it. But take responsibility he must, and he does. It should be noted that both Mr. Parsons and Mr. Pace, making their Broadway debuts, are known primarily for their work in television. Let this be the first step in quashing all of that "stunt casting"/"TV actors shouldn't do Broadway" chatter. Both have added to this season with their presence.
Mark Harelik, who plays Ned Week's straight attorney brother, has a most interesting journey in this play, starting as the brother who feels he is as supportive of his brother's gayness as anyone could possibly be, transforming into a man who comes to respect his brother's activism and finally opens his heart to his brother, his brother's lover and his brother's cause. Harelik delivers this epic change in character with amazing subtlety, emotional depth and a satisfying catharsis. Patrick Breen also delivers the goods as the necessarily nebbish and completely fearful Health Department worker. His fear of being outed is palpable and horrifying, while his willingness to stick with it, despite the potential ruining of his career, is inspiring. After continual brow beating by Ned and the utter lack of respect he is given by others in the community because of what he does for a living, he finally breaks. This brilliant monologue of despair, fear and loathing unleashed is superbly handled by Mr. Breen, earning him a healthy hand upon his exit.
Another Tony nominee (and Broadway debutante) is Ellen Barkin, who commands the stage, despite her diminutive stature, like the greatest Broadway actresses do. Her voice, her very presence, commands respect, even as she doles out small bits of her character. She lets Dr. Emma Brookner build and build until her final, incredible, shake-you-to-the-core monologue. Yes, Ms. Barkin measures out each facet of character like she is measuring a drug about to be dispensed to a patient, allowing her to grow from a sort of enigma - is she so bitter and impassioned because she is a victim of a different plague, polio, and confined to a wheelchair? - into a compassionate, strong, ballsy firecracker who commands respect even as she is defeated and effectively shut down. Her speech before the CDC board is one of those electrifying moments in live theatre that you are bound never to forget.
My companion on this trip was Mike, who has been with me through the entire season and well beyond. Upon exiting the theatre, he took the conversation about audience reaction in a new direction. "You didn't even pause before you stood up at the end," he said to me. "Sometimes, you don't stand at all, but most of the time, you wait to stand, even if everyone else is already standing." He's right. I don't just stand to stand like a lot of people do. I have often defiantly stayed seated when a performance does not warrant a standing ovation, and usually will wait until the performer I feel deserves it comes out for a bow. This time, as Mike will tell you, I stood before the lights were even all the way out and the cast assembled.
Every once in awhile, the play, the playwright and the entire performance deserve that much praise. "Every once in awhile" came this season with The Normal Heart.
(Photos by Joan Marcus)
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