Joanna Gleason and Raúl Esparzain The Normal Heart(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
Joanna Gleason and Raúl Esparza
in The Normal Heart
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
It's an essential fact of history that it's not the leaders but the agitators who really change the world. The people who don't just push the envelope but also stuff it, lick it, and mail it are the ones who invariably get shunted aside as someone else delivers that same metaphorical envelope. That's part of the story of The Normal Heart, the seminal piece of autobiographical/political theater by Larry Kramer, who was forced out of the Gay Men's Health Crisis -- the organization he co-founded -- just as it came to prominence.

Of course, one way to get some credit for your contribution to history is to write a play about yourself that becomes a hit. Kramer did just that and. In the bargain, he not only gets credit for greatly helping the early fight against AIDS, he is also rightfully recognized as the author of one of the most important political plays of the last 30 years.

The Worth Street Theater Company revival of The Normal Heart at the Public Theater captures the desperate passion of the early 1980s, when AIDS was decimating New York's gay community and no one would listen. The story that resonates in ways similar to holocaust literature because its emotional links to the past are still very much alive, The Normal Heart makes a thunderous statement -- and that thunder you hear and feel is the explosive voice of Larry Kramer.

David Esbjornson directs this tight, almost claustrophobic production with relentless energy. At its anything-but-normal heart is Raúl Esparza as Ned Weeks (a.k.a. Larry Kramer), perfectly cast as the angry, volatile crusader who insists that gay men will not be taken seriously until they define themselves by something other than their desire to have sex with other men. Esparza plays the arc of Kramer's journey, including the loss of his own lover to AIDS, with such a heavy emphasis on rage that it sometimes threatens to overwhelm the sensitive side of his performance; still, it's hard to imagine another contemporary actor so right for the role.

Joanna Gleason is very strong as the AIDS doctor who supplies the audience with all the necessary medical facts, while Billy Warlock as Ned's lover and McCaleb Burnett as a transplanted Southerner named Tommy Boatwright both contribute particularly adept performances.

The Normal Heart was a hot-button play when it premiered in 1985. While AIDS is, of course, still very much with us, we can now view the piece in an historical context. That it still works is the mark of a great playwright and a finely wrought revival.

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Margaret Curry
Margaret Curry
A Fascinating Cabaret Debut

We always arrive at the solo debut of a cabaret artist with a sense of anticipatory excitement. The hope that we might find ourselves in the presence of a great new talent is ever-present, but that doesn't happen often. Most of the time, in fact, we'd prefer a dentist's appointment to an hour of debut torture; at the dentist, you at least get a shot before the horror begins. It's somewhere between these two extremes that Margaret Curry lands in her solo show at The Duplex, In the Meanwhile..

The especially good news is that Curry is a fine actress with lots of presence and poise. The raw ingredients of a fine cabaret artist are clearly in evidence and she is already exceptional with the right material. Curry has fun (and so did the audience) with her playful rendition of "Goody, Goody" and she's emotionally connected to such songs as "Birmingham" and "She." On the other hand, she is out of her depth in "The Miller's Son" from Stephen Sondheim's A Little Night Music; the interpretation doesn't ring true with the lyric, and her performances of a few other songs suffer from the same flaw.

Tall, slender, and beautiful, Curry doesn't have to push the "vamp" button nearly as hard as she does. It's a common mistake of good-looking entertainers -- both male and female -- to play to what they perceive as their strength, but physical attractiveness is self-evident and need not be emphasized. Curry is going to come across as sexy no matter what she does on stage. She shouldn't hit the same note so often, lest she be perceived as a one-trick pony.

Her voice takes second place to her acting chops; the less vocally demanding the song, the more she infuses the lyrics with her thespian skills. As for the show itself, directed by Lina Koutrakos, there are times when it seems overwritten. But Curry has surrounded herself with excellent musicians: Rick Jensen's arrangements are exciting and bass player Mark Wade adds a sweet dimension with his exquisite bowing.

From what we saw of Curry in the very first performance of her debut cabaret act, we can say that she's a gifted entertainer with considerable potential. If she learns from this experience, her sophomore show could be sensational. In the Meanwhile, she can be seen at The Duplex on May 7 and 21 at 7pm, and on May 18 at 9pm.

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[To contact the Siegels directly, e-mail them at siegelentertainment@msn.com.]