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'The Normal Heart' still beats today

"The Normal Heart" was never meant to be a subtle work. Larry Kramer wrote it in 1985 to be a shock to the system, an alarm siren, a blunt instrument to bludgeon Ed Koch's New York, Ronald Reagan's Washington, the indifferent press and complacent medical industry into acknowledging the mysterious disease destroying gay men.

Over a quarter-century later, Kramer's landmark AIDS drama remains an all-too-necessary piece of propaganda art by the fiercest canary in the AIDS mine.

As Broadway is finally getting to see, however, this Off-Broadway legend is also riveting theater, pulsing with characters who stay with us as much for their humanity as their function in the conflict. What once seemed like a sectarian story line about factions within the gay community has, with time, taken on the gripping if unwieldy moral heft of a monument by Arthur Miller.

The revival, first directed by Joel Grey for a celebrated benefit reading last year, has been co-staged now by George C. Wolfe as an urgent history lesson, a time capsule of the early plague years of 1981 to 1984 and a physically lean, emotionally devastating piece of intimate theater.

Joe Mantello, who left acting for a distinguished directing career after creating Louis in "Angels in America," has returned to the stage to portray Ned Weeks, Kramer's stand-in, a divisive figure who was loathed by the community for wanting gays to stop having sex in order to protect people from the virus.

Where Raúl Esparza made a charismatic Ned in the excellent 2004 Off-Broadway revival, Mantello is a febrile, nerdy, twitchy guy who cannot help wearing his nervous system on the outside. The actor is matched, thunderbolt for thunderbolt, by Ellen Barkin as the appalled doctor, partially paralyzed by polio and overwhelmed both by her dying patients and the country's apathy.

The other 10 actors -- including John Benjamin Hickey as Ned's lover, Jim Parsons as the group's conciliatory charmer, and Lee Pace as the closeted banker -- embody Ned's friends and foes as if actual lives still depend upon them.

A letter from Kramer, updating the global disgrace, is distributed after the play, often by Kramer himself. As much as I admired his fury in '85, I remember wondering if he wasn't, perhaps, a little paranoid in his need to affix blame to a nightmare. These days, it is clear he was a prophet.

WHAT "The Normal Heart"

WHERE Golden Theatre, 252 W. 45th St.

INFO $26.50-$116.50; 212-239-6200;

BOTTOM LINE Essential history, riveting theater

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