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May 31 2011

Stage Door: "The Normal Heart"(Plus Feisty Divas,McDormand and Chenoweth)

Time for your semi-weekly theater fix.This one's about a famous play that has (thus far) eluded movie adaptations,the most publicized of which was Barbra Streisand's attempt to have a go at it in the late 1980s.

A new Tony nominated Broadway revival of Larry Kramer's psychic screamThe Normal Heartopened recently to absolutely ectastic reviews.The play is very much a product of its time and place,AIDS ravaged 1980s New York.The original play premiered in 1985 Off Broadway,with film starBrad Davisin the lead role.(Davis was diagnosed with the disease himself that same year though this wasn't revealed to the public until 1991 before his death) The play must have been an absolutely defiant shock to the system at a time when people were still struggling to even say the word "AIDS"out loud.Though Kramer's best known work has been revived a few times since,this is its first Broadway run.

It's a strong play,even accepting that it errsalwayson the side of pedantics,but I'm afraid I wasn't nearly as taken with the new production as most have been.I'm assuming most of the enthusiasm for this production would have been a bit more muted if the 2004 Off Broadway revival which starred the greatRaul Esparzaas "Ned Weeks"aka Larry Kramer,had been a bigger success.The play's bristling humanity and hammered messages were somehow both easier to take and harder to stomach (if that makes any sense) in the intimacy that the Off Broadway stage provided.

a starry cast for the 2011 revival

It's the scale that's often the issue here.Tony nominated Joe Mantello is a fine actor but it was difficult (for me at least) to wipe Esparza's quieter and more nuanced portrayal from memory as I watched him.Ellen Barkin,who may win the Tony for her very aggressive and crowd-pleasing second act monologue as "Dr.Death",has Mantello's same problem of scale.It seems to be a question of direction since nearly everyone in the cast is constantly shouting at the top of their lungs.Anybody would given the narrative proceedings but the play is so innately blistering that actors who trust that ravaged vocal chords could never grant it more potency than it already has fare better;best in show is Tony nominated featured actor John Benjamin Hickey as Ned's lover "Felix Turner",who both admires and is perplexed by his partner's constant shouting and fighting.

[Tangent: Though it's neither here nor there,Lee Pace,who plays Ned's antagonist,the handsome but closeted "Bruce Niles",is AMAZINGLY TALL.He towers over the rest of the cast,which I wouldn't have guessed watchingPushing Daisies(Did everyone stand on boxes around him?) He is so imposing physically,live on the stage,that I was forced to check his height on IMDb on the way home: 6'3"]

Mantello and Hickey in "The Normal Heart"This production's white and boxy stage design is both weirdly offputting and far too-static in the first act and emotionally right and eerily tomb-like in the play's much stronger second act.The final moments,aided considerably by Hickey's performance and inspiring lighting,do stun.But I have to confess: I never once cried though I was a bawling mess through the entire second act of the 2004 revival.

Tony Kushner'sAngels in America,which arrived a half decade after Kramer's play,has long since been canonized as one of The Great Masterworks of American theater.Angelshas held tight to the unofficial title oftheAIDS play.But in its own particular personal way,The Normal Heartis its angrier cruder earth-bound cousin.The Normal Heartdoesn't bother with symbolism or poetry -- whether that's through lack of ability or easily imagined bilious rejection of escapism is up to you -- and generates all of its admirable potency from its fragile impotent humanity,raging against the powers that be,from within its diseased bodies.Everyone should see both plays in their lifetime.

This production ofThe Normal Heart:B
The 2004 revival: an easyA

Stage People
La Daily Musto
Frances McDormand stopped the show (literally!) during one of the last performances of Tony nominatedGood People(from theRabbit Holeauthor David Lindsay-Abaire)
Awards Daily
David Mamet's turn to the dark side,politically speaking.
PlaybillComposer David Yazbek (ofThe Full Montyfame) talking about Pedro Almodóvar and the adaptation ofWomen on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdownfor the stage.

Busy Broadway Baby: Kristin's new CD and new TV show

Finally...Just Jaredspoke with Kristin Chenoweth who will try to tour for her new CD around her schedule for her new TV series "Good Christian Belles"and,one presumes,eventual futureGleecameos because who doesn't love "April Rhodes"?Busy busy!

I love the Cheno as you know so I'm thrilled by her ever increasing fame,but I can't imagine buying her country CDs and this lead off single sounds very generic.Her first CD "Let Yourself Go"is glorious fun but it's all show-tunes which is just where she shines.Personally I only listen to country music if it leans towards bluegrass or folk and stays far from generic "pop"unless it's just straight up A+ music like the Dixie Chicks.How will Kristin marry her different personas in a tour.I've seen her live five times now and while she is amazingly charismatic on stage and I've never regretted a ticket purchase her concerts seem increasingly schizo as her fanbase expands.Will country fans be able to deal with her comedic/operatic  "Glitter and Be Gay"moments...or will she just dump all the showtunes / opera to appease mainstream fans?

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Reader Comments (9)

I understand your review of The Normal Heart.Even from someone who saw it twice and sobbed uncontrollably both times,I get what you mean by everyone shouting.I was particularly bothered by it in Ellen Barkin's character though I handwaved it since her fury was justified in the stronger second act.I definitely agree on Best in Show going to Hickey though.Wished I could've seen Raul Esparza's Ned Weeks.

Finally,yes Lee Pace,tall,imposing.My friends and I couldn't keep our eyes from staring at his long midsection.Ha!

May 31,2011 | Unregistered CommenterRyan T.

That Frances McDormand story was perfect.It's always interesting to see incidents like this or the Jackman/Craig thing a few years ago,where the actors find ways of calling out the audience for being rude.Now if only there was some way for movie characters to do the same thing...

May 31,2011 | Unregistered Commenterjbaker475

Didn't "Pushing Daisies"get a lot of mileage out of Lee Pace vs.Kristin Chenoweth (basically a Munchkin,bless her heart)?I distinctly remember Cheno climbing on a table or something and standing face to face with him.But she still only came up to his chin.It reminded me of how "Sullivan's Travels"did a bunch of sight gags with towering Joel McCrea and teeny-tiny Veronica Lake.

May 31,2011 | Unregistered CommenterLiz N.

Liz just took the moment out of my mouth because I was just rewatching season one of PUSHING DAISIES (how I love that show) and I remember in "Corpsicle"Kristin climbs on a stool,kneeling down,and she still looks impossibly short (I remember the moment Liz mentions too,Lee ends up looking looking so much taller because he's so thin).I'm a bit iffy about Kristin doing country too,but I will take her in any shape or form - I'd always figured of the Broadway women that someone like Sherie Rene Scott would more apt to go the country route

(PS.Nat I think you're tired David Yazbek is "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels"and "The Full Monty"not "Nine".)

May 31,2011 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew K.

Andrew and Liz -- oh i get where you're coming from.i wasn't specific enough.Yes,the height difference between Lee & Kiristin was played for laughs but he was TOWERING over male actors in this production which lent me to believe that everyone in the cast of Pushing Daisies was standing on boxes in their scenes together.Not just Kristin ;)

jbaker - amen.

May 31,2011 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

I love the Frannie story.It takes guts to stop a play dead.I love her even more for that,but here's my question: did anybody scold the woman who took the call?Someone should have educately invited her to leave the theater,with a kick in the ass.

June 1,2011 | Unregistered CommenterSeisgrados

I remember doing a scene from "The Normal Heart"in one of my undergrad acting classes.Pretty heavy stuff.

And may I add kudos to Frances McDormand for calling out that patron's blatant rudeness.When I saw the black people's "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof"three years ago,I was absolutely appalled at the audience's behavior.It was a wonder anyone on stage could concentrate for the first thirty to forty minutes.

June 1,2011 | Unregistered CommenterTroy H

And my calling it "the black people's"version isn't half as racist as it sounds considering I'm black myself.Hahaha.

June 1,2011 | Unregistered CommenterTroy H

Thank you Nate!I have never seen The Normal Heart so I was really rooting for your comments...I guess the movie version is closer than ever know.
Glad you liked Hickey.Since The Big C I'm his newest fan

PS Audiences are so rude these days!I wish I could turn into Terminator just to keep them in silence

June 3,2011 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue
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