Worth Street Opens Its Heart Off-Broadway April 21

News   Worth Street Opens Its Heart Off-Broadway April 21
 
Nearly 20 years after its premiere, The Normal Heart by Larry Kramer will open once more in Manhattan. The Worth Street Theatre Company produces the David Esbjornson-directed revival.

Raul Esparza in The Normal Heart
Raul Esparza in The Normal Heart Photo by Carol Rosegg

The production had its first preview at the Public Theater's Anspacher space on April 9. This mounting marks the landmark drama's first major New York revival.

The cast includes stars Raul Esparza, as activist Ned Weeks, and Joanna Gleason, in the choice role of fiery, wheelchair-bound Dr. Emma Brookner. Also in the cast are Fred Berman as health columnist Mickey Marcus, Richard Bekins as Ned's lawyer brother Ben, McCaleb Burnett as the southerner Tommy, Mark Dobies as closeted bank executive Bruce Niles, Jay Russell as an unfeeling City Hall functionary, Billy Warlock as Ned's lover Felix and Paul Whitthorne in a variety of roles.

The Public Theater is where The Normal Heart was first produced in 1985. The drama was one of the first plays about the emergence of AIDS, and the anger, frustration and fear surrounding it. The action of the play takes place between July 1981 and May 1984, making it a period piece. The disease is now an international epidemic. The work ran a year at The Public after its debut.

The lack of response by politicians in Washington and New York City (notably former NYC Mayor Ed Koch) the medical profession and the media—particularly The New York Times—is addressed in the angry, visceral drama about Ned Weeks. Weeks is based on Kramer himself (who founded the Gay Men's Health Crisis) and his circle of friends. Writer and AIDS activist Kramer told Variety that if people screamed as much about AIDS in its early years as they are about the flu-like SARS today, "It is a plague that never need have happened."

Esbjornson stages the piece with a minimum of elements—a table, a few chair, a couch and a scattering of props. Kramer followed up the work with another autobiographical piece, The Destiny of Me, about Ned Weeks childhood and upbringing.

Esparza starred in the Broadway musical Taboo, which closed Feb. 8. The versatile actor made his name with a series of acclaimed performances in Cabaret, The Rocky Horror Show and tick, tick...BOOM!.

Gleason will end a long hiatus from the New York stage with The Normal Heart. The part of Brookner—which features a show-stopping, second act speech—has been an attention-getter in the past.

After cutting a sizable Broadway profile in the 1980s and early 1990s in such shows as Into the Woods (for which she won a Tony), Social Security, Joe Egg and the famous 1991 debacle Nick and Nora, Gleason decamped for the west coast. Over the last decade, she has starred in such short-lived series as "Love and War," "Temporarily Yours," "Oh Baby" and "Bette," as well as putting in guest stints on "Friends" and "The West Wing."

In the original production, Brad Davis created the role of crusader Ned Weeks, and Joel Grey later took over the part.

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The show received a new director in Esbjornson on March 25. The switch pushed back the first preview from April 6 to April 9.

Esbjornson replaced Jeff Cohen, artistic director of Worth Street. The development is an unusual one for the company, since Cohen typically directs every Worth Street production.

"I am very honored to have assembled this phenomenal cast and design team," said Cohen in a statement. "During the course of rehearsal, however, it became apparent that a change would be in the best interest of the production, and I was happy that such a wonderful director as David Esbjornson was available to step into the process."

Esbjornson stated, "I am thrilled to be working with Larry again and with this wonderful group of actors and designers on such an important play."

Esbjornson was the director of Larry Kramer's lesser-known play, Just Say No, at the WPA Theater.

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