The first Broadway production of Larry Kramer‘s landmark 1985 play “The Normal Heart” opened on Wednesday to rave reviews. This staging stems from a charity reading last fall and features many of the same names. Headlining the drama about the early days of the AIDS crisis is actor turned director Joe Mantello, who was a Tony nominee for “Angels in America” in 1993; he lost the featured race to co-star Stephen Spinella. Since then, Mantello has won two Tonys for his helming of the play “Take Me Out” (2003) and the musical “Assassins” (2004).
Joining him are John Benjamin Hickey, whom he directed in the 1995 Best Play champ “Love! Valor! Compassion,” and, in her Broadway debut, Ellen Barkin. Directing the production once more is Tony and Oscar winner Joel Grey (“Cabaret”) who was part of the original company of “Wicked. Having just opened in the revival of “Anything Goes” Grey was assisted by George Wolfe who won the first of his two Tonys for helming “Angels in America.” His other win came for the musical “Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk” in 1996.
Leading the cheers was New York Times critic Ben Brantley who said the play, “blasts you like an open, overstoked furnace. Your eyes are pretty much guaranteed to start stinging before the first act is over, and by the play’s end even people who think they have no patience for polemical theater may find their resistance has melted into tears. No, make that sobs.”
For Mark Kennedy (AP), “Joel Grey and George C. Wolfe co-direct and push the throttle — each scene is fraught with emotion, anger is quick to explode, papers are tossed with abandon, and any moment of humor is milked for the relief it offers from a hectic production.
And said Joe Dziemianowicz (New York Daily News), “Tugging at his sweater and forever fidgeting, Mantello not only summons the jangled nerves and manic energy that drive Ned, but locates and exposes the insecure heart beneath the man’s raging exterior. He’s outstanding. His co-stars match him. In her Broadway debut, Ellen Barkin seethes with fire and ice as a pioneering AIDS doc, while Hickey brings touching tenderness as the doomed Felix.”