Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Best of 2011 Countdown: #3

Best of 2011
#3 – The Normal Heart

Joe Mantello and John Benjamin Hickey in The Normal Heart

This show wasn’t even on my radar until I was given the opportunity to review it.  I think I had some inkling that it was an AIDS play, and I knew it marked Joe Mantello’s return to acting after a long and very successful period of directing (among other things, he helmed a little skit called Wicked).  I am so incredibly grateful that I went.

The Normal Heart was a theatrical sucker punch.  I wasn’t prepared for the ferocity of this piece, which was born of playwright Larry Kramer’s outrage over the way the government, media, and medical community reacted during the early days of the AIDS epidemic.  It is the anger of a man trying to do something, anything to save his community from the ravages of an unseen enemy, perfectly encapsulated in the story of activist Ned Weeks’ attempt to bring attention to the way the epidemic was destroying the gay community in early ‘80s New York City.  And unlike many didactic works of theatre, this play’s righteous anger never felt unjustified or overwrought.  Indeed, you left the theatre feeling just as outraged as Weeks, and a tad guilty for not having done more, sooner.

For a 25-year-old play, Normal Heart felt surprisingly, alarmingly current, due in no small part to the Herculean efforts of an exceptional ensemble.  Mantello absolutely sizzled in the central role, a performance made all the more remarkable given his nearly two decade absence from acting.  Despite spending the better part of two hours angry at seemingly everyone, Mantello always remained sympathetic, the perfect facet through which to view the play.  And as a doctor desperately trying to secure funding for research, Ellen Barkin blew the roof off of the Golden Theatre with her climatic monologue late in Act II.  The night I saw the play, Barkin’s speech was greeted with the kind of thunderous applause usually reserved for showstopping musical numbers, and was such a dizzying display of acting skill that it took several minutes for me to recover from it enough to focus on the remainder of the play.

After The Normal Heart, I left the theatre knowing I had seen not just an excellent play, but an important one.  As a gay man, it gave me insight into a time of our shared history of which I had only a passing understanding.  And as a member of the human race, it reawakened me to the continued plight of millions of people, a plight it is easy to marginalize because we in America have things relatively under control.  Few shows have had such a profound effect on me, and that easily makes The Normal Heart one of the Best Shows of 2011.

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