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Theater review: 'The Normal Heart' -- 4 stars

The Normal Heart

The Normal Heart Photo Credit: Handout

The Normal Heart

4 stars

Larry Kramer’s seminal AIDS drama “The Normal Heart” is the kind of show that hits you like a jackhammer. Twenty-five years since it premiered at the Public Theater, it remains a powerful example of political theater at its most direct, passionate and urgent levels.

Kramer explores the birth of the AIDS crisis in New York and how public officials and the media ignored the disease. He also takes issue with the gay community for not being outspoken enough.

Kramer himself is portrayed as Ned Weeks, an obnoxious and disliked activist who bands his friends together to form the Gay Men’s Health Crisis. While his colleagues try to stay patient, Weeks furiously lashes out at anyone standing in the way of progress.

The current Broadway production began as a one-night-only benefit reading in the fall directed by Joel Grey, who once played Weeks. Joe Mantello, one of Broadway’s top directors, returned to his roots as an actor to play Weeks now.

After the reading received a very positive response, the producers resolved to bring it back as a full Broadway production.

The intimate show, which is co-directed by Grey and George C. Wolfe, is set on a bare stage whose white walls are covered with facts about the time period and the disease. At the very end, the names of AIDS victims flood the stage and spill into the auditorium itself. It is a devastating effect.

Mantello captures Weeks’ confrontational, occasionally hysterical spirit but combines it with easygoing charisma and convincing emotion.

He is joined by an outstanding ensemble cast including Jim Parsons as a flamboyant young volunteer, Ellen Barkin as a paralyzed doctor attempting to spread the truth about the disease, and John Benjamin Hickey as Weeks’ lover Felix.

If you go: “The Normal Heart” plays at the Golden Theatre through July 10. 252 W. 45th St., 212-239-6200, TheNormalHeartBroadway.com.

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