PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER With The Normal Heart's George C. Wolfe

By Kenneth Jones
21 May 2011

Co-director Joel Grey
photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Tell me about your participation in this production, because there are two directors credited — was Joel Grey in the room with you?
GW: Joel did the concert reading, and the concert reading inspired and excited everybody who was involved to do the work. And then all of a sudden they found a [Broadway] theatre. At one point it was going to be a reading, and then it became very clear that it couldn't be a reading because it needed to be more to be competitive in the landscape, and Joel was tied up doing what he was doing, so they called me to get involved. So I liken it to, sort of, running a relay race, and Joel ran the first leg of the race, and then I took the baton and took over. So he wasn't in the room in a physical way, but his energy galvanized everybody and got it to a certain point.

It was a hand-off.
GW: It was a hand-off. Exactly.

I loved the stark white neutrality of the set, with headlines and words in white-on-white bas relief. The white obviously supports the projections. Do you like working in that kind of spare physical world?
GW: The thing I talked to [scenic designer David] Rockwell about is, I wanted to create the feel of an installation. I wanted it to be like a memorial to the fallen. So what's written on the walls is the history of AIDS in New York from 1981 to 1984. There are all these stories, and [the set spells out] the details of that. I wanted the environment to have a crispness so that the ferocity of the language and the fragility of the heart would be on display. I'm also not a big fan of realism. TV does it better, movies does it even better, you know?

We're the theatre.
GW: Yeah, we're the theatre, a place of ideas and imagination, so give me an abstract space and the specificity of the details.

Joe Mantello in The Normal Heart.
photo by Joan Marcus

One of the things about Ned Weeks that people always talk about is, "He's just a screamer," but I forgot that he's so neurotic, vulnerable, human and self-hating —
GW: Yeah, exactly. And self-loving, and doing what he does because he loves as much as he loves — he loves [his partner] Felix. And, also, he isn't a screamer, he's a person who's ferociously committed to what he's committed to and is fueled by fear and loss.

What was your relationship with Joe Mantello like on this production?
GW: Well, we were recreating an old relationship because of Angels, so it was great to come back and revisit it because he became a director. Directors don't work with other directors, so it was nice for us to go back and be collaborators again.

It's a shorthand.
GW: Exactly, and when you direct somebody once — at least for me — it's such an intimate relationship, so it was nice to go, "Oh, are all those muscles still there? Oh, yes they are!"

Ned Weeks and Louis Ironson from Angels are cut from the same cloth. Also, I couldn't help thinking of Ibsen's noisy, moral leading character of An Enemy of the People. These men are all part of a literary tradition.
GW: Exactly. Exactly. It's a play that is fueled by politics but is also fueled by intimacy, and heart and toughness.

They're humans — they're not just ideas.
GW: Exactly. Fragile humans fighting a monster that is eating their friends.

What's coming up for you? Give me a scoop.
GW: I don't know… I can't… no scoop! No, no no, no, no…! Let's see... I'm doing a production of Little Mary Sunshine at an obscure theatre in Cincinnati, how about that? [Laughs.] But everybody is going to be naked! [Laughs.]

(Kenneth Jones is managing editor of Write him at Follow him on Twitter @PlaybillKenneth.)