Joe Mantello and John Benjamin Hickey
in The Normal Heart
(© Joan Marcus)
Joe Mantello and John Benjamin Hickey
in The Normal Heart
(© Joan Marcus)
The political and the personal collide with devastating effect in The Normal Heart, Larry Kramer's powerful and passionate 1985 play about the early years of the AIDS crisis, now making its Broadway bow at the Golden Theatre.

While some may feel that its debut on the Great White Way is long overdue, all can rejoice in this impeccable production, directed with enormous sensitivity and clarity by Joel Grey and George C. Wolfe and performed by a remarkable ensemble led by the brilliant Joe Mantello.

Part history lesson, part cautionary tale, and part call to continuing action, this thinly disguised autobiographical work focuses on the efforts of crusading journalist Ned Weeks (Mantello) to get New York's gay community -- as well as its government and media -- to pay attention to the mysterious disease that is rapidly claiming the lives of gay men.

Ned is sparked into his quest by no-nonsense, paraplegic physician Emma Brookner (Ellen Barkin), but Ned's pleas to having his gay brethren to follow her exhortation to stop having sex altogether -- as well as his hair-trigger temper -- eventually alienates him from fellow activists Bruce Niles (Lee Pace), Mickey Marcus (Patrick Breen), and Tommy Boatwright (Jim Parsons). His dedication to the cause is only intensified when his lover, New York Times reporter Felix Turner (John Benjamin Hickey), contracts the mysterious, life-threatening illness.

If Kramer's work occasionally feels overly didactic -- spouting facts, figures, and accusations at sometimes dizzying speed -- it is consistently truthful. The play is also unforgiving in spreading blame -- which Kramer also heaps on himself. (Former New York City Mayor Ed Koch takes a particularly severe thrashing.) Fortunately, though, Kramer balances his anger with humor and empathy, serving up rounded portraits of his one-time friends and lovers.

Mantello, making a return to stage acting after a nearly two-decade absence, is an ideal Ned, all nerve-endings and spontaneous combustion. He doesn't shy away from the character's stridency, yet we understand the root of all of Ned's actions and reactions, and he ultimately gains our sympathy without ever asking for it.

Moreover, Mantello exhibits enormous chemistry with Hickey, who gives a Tony Award-worthy turn as Felix. Their connection is immediately palpable, and the pair's relationship forms the emotional core of the play, especially as Hickey beautiful details Felix coming to terms with his unfortunate fate.

Barkin, completely deglamorized, is uncharacteristically understated as Emma -- except in the key scene where she explodes with shocking ferocity at a government doctor (Richard Topol). Pace perfectly captures the inner conflicts of the professionally-closeted, movie star-handsome Bruce (outfitted in period hairstyle and mustache and perfectly costumed by Martin Pakledinaz), while Parsons (best known for his Emmy Award-winning work on CBS' The Big Bang Theory) is pitch-perfect, delivering equal parts compassion and self-described "Southern Bitch" as the smarter-than-he-seems Tommy. In addition, Breen does superb work, most notably in Mickey's harrowing breakdown scene, and there are fine contributions by Mark Harelik as Ned's straight brother, Ben, and Luke MacFarlane, who proves memorable in two small parts.

The production gains added dramatic heft from David Rockwell's white three-walled set, embossed with key words, phrases, and numbers from the early 1980s, and which serves as a screen for the projections of Batwin + Robin Productions, including an all-too-lengthy list of many of those who suffered from a horrible disease that might have claimed fewer lives if earlier action had been taken. As Kramer deftly reminds us, the lessons of The Normal Heart need to be carefully taught again and again.