This post was originally an email I sent to my coworker, Taylor, who works in the L.A. office. She was the one who suggested I start a blog in the first place. A working actress, she misses the New York theater world, so I always give her updates on what I’ve seen. As a result, these pieces are essentially short reviews.
The Normal Heart by Larry Kramer is the most gut-wrenching thing I’ve ever seen. I cried for the last half hour of the play and continued to sob for an hour after. Written and originally performed in 1985, it’s about the early days of the AIDS epidemic and trying to get gay men to accept the causes of the disease and speak up. It’s all based on Larry Kramer’s actual experiences in starting the Gay Men’s Health Crisis in the early eighties. The acting is just incredible – Joe Mantello plays the main character. He was the original Louis in Angels in America, and I can totally see him playing the part. The Ned Weeks is a similar character in that he goes on long rants about historical events and their sociological implications, but different in that he has so much passion and fire. He yells for a good part of the play, which I usually dislike, but there is no moment in this that rings false or overblown. It’s such a passionate, magnetic performance. A prolific Broadway director, Mantello had not acted since Angels, and the work he does here demonstrates his passion for the play and its content.
The rest of the cast is amazing as well, all playing very different gay men with very different views. Ellen Barkin makes her Broadway debut as the lone woman, the doctor who diagnoses all of them. She is very powerful, delivering a scene-long rant that makes me fear for her vocal cords. The set is very bare-bones, and the directors (George C. Wolfe and Joel Grey!!) use a motif where they project the names of the men who have died so far on the walls…and there are more and more and more as the play goes on. At the end they cover the whole theater. It’s so moving. Then, when you leave the theater, there are people handing you letters from Larry Kramer detailing the ongoing fight against AIDS and the people involved in the play who have died since it was written. Seeing this play was especially affecting for me because I’ve had a strong interest in the AIDS epidemic since I read Randy Shilts’s And the Band Played On. Larry Kramer himself is one of the “characters” in that nonfiction work, and it follows him as he founds the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, loses his lover, and writes The Normal Heart. Finally seeing the fruit of his labors and righteous anger was both gratifying and infuriating. I feel that the play may have an even stronger effect on us now because we now know what happened – the epidemic was spread by unprotected sex, and the way to advance the gay rights movement was not to advocate promiscuity but to focus on relationships and human feeling. We in the audience know that Ned is right, and it makes the play even more heartbreaking.
Jerusalem by Jez Butterworth is also very powerful, but in an entirely different way. It’s about a middle-aged drunk who lives in a trailer in the woods outside a small town in England. An ex-daredevil, he has a crooked back and is essentially a Falstaff-type character. Many of the teenagers in the town hang out with him for booze and drugs, but also for a father figure, dysfunctional though he may be. Mark Rylance is absolutely incredible in this role – if you’ve never seen him, he’s a thin, unassuming guy in normal life, but he is a complete chameleon as an actor. Here he takes over the stage, and his presence is simply magnetic. Ben Brantley, about whom I generally have mixed feelings, calls Mark Rylance’s performance “seismic,” and that’s a perfect description for it. He builds the depth and power of the character as the play gradually grows more and more serious. There’s one amazing scene in which he tells a story about meeting a giant, and the theater is absolutely silent as everyone listens intently. Actors and audience members alike are frozen in mute rapture, lost in nostalgia for the mythic England of old. It takes place over one day – the last day before Rooster is evicted from his trailer and his woods – and we sense that removing Rooster is like removing a giant from his woods. Performed in three acts – the first very comic, the second a mix, and the third quite tragic – the power of the play sneaks up on you. When the theater goes dark and the curtain falls, you don’t know what hit you.