PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Baby It's You! and The Normal Heart — The Vinyl and the Virus

By Harry Haun
28 Apr 2011

Joe Mantello; guests Jack Noseworthy, Vanessa Redgrave and Robin de Jesús
photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN
Meanwhile, back at the Golden, The Normal Heart was running its sad, somber, heart-wrenching course. There were no sniffles, like during War Horse. These were sobs that broke the deafening silence of a packed house. There was no coughing, mostly absolute stillness throughout the play, save for sporadic laughter and endless exit applause. It was that kind of appreciative house.

After the cast bowed, Grey (fresh from his Anything Goes performance) strolled on stage for a bow, followed by his co-director, Wolfe, and author Kramer.

When they left the stage, the house lights slowly came up, and with them a sea of names of AIDS victims flooded the stage in a projection. The house was still, then people started moving very slowly, almost reluctantly. Vanessa Redgrave stayed in her seat, hand over her heart as if praying for everyone who had died of the disease, and doubtlessly including her first husband, director Sir Tony Richardson.

A single-page note from Kramer was presented to patrons as they filed out of the theatre, providing an update of some characters — including the deaths of three.

Lead producer Daryl Roth took her share of deserved bows for the evening and passed the thanks along. "It was challenging to pull together," she conceded. "There was this time element. There was this pressure of wondering if we'd get a theatre, and finally we did, and, once we did, there were just a few weeks to get it together so that we could open tonight under the Tony deadline. Thanks to this cast, thanks to George Wolfe for stepping in, thanks to the wonderful designers — I mean, everybody had the passion for this piece. I feel very validated tonight. I knew I'd make it happen, but there's something about people's response that fills my heart."

Joe Mantello, a Tony-winning director relapsing into actor for this one role, provides the fighting heart of the play as the constantly combative Ned Weeks. "I love doing this play with this group of actors — they are an astonishing group of powerhouse performers," he said. "I saw the original production when I was just out of drama school. I heard Mr. Kramer's play, and I thought, 'That is a part I would like to play — although I'm 21 right now. It's unlikely it's going to happen.' But it actually, finally happened. It's a dream come true. How many of us can say that?"

Larry Kramer
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photo by Carol Rosegg

The real Ned Weeks, Kramer, was in an uncharacteristically upbeat mood. "I was nervous until I just was told that The Times' review was an over-the-top rave," he said. "I've never been treated well in The Times — ever. They've never reviewed anything of mine with anything less than vitriol, and so I assumed it would happen again, and I don't like going through that experience. But for it to be a rave feels really good."

Grey, who took over the role of Ned Weeks from Brad Davis in the original production of The Normal Heart and directed bi-coastal 25th anniversary revival benefits that led to this production, was afraid his current performance in Anything Goes would keep him out of the Normal Heart lift-off, but storm clouds lifted at the last moment.

"As luck will have it, we began a seven o'clock performance schedule this week so I was able to see the last half hour of the play and be on stage with the company. This was a labor, mainly, of love. It was about 'We have to make this play happen because Larry Kramer deserves it.'"

Late-arriving in the project, Wolfe managed to keep a steady hand on the production getting it to market. "It started out when Joe and Daryl called me up and asked me to do it," he recalled. "I said, 'Let me think about.' Then I thought about it for about a week, and I said 'Yes.' I did it just to help out, but the more I got inside it the more I realized how much I loved it and how important it was to be done now."

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In the role of "The Holy Terror in a Wheelchair," the polio-stricken doctor preaching abstinence during the disease's outbreak, Ellen Barkin similarly acknowledged others for her blistering Broadway debut: "George is the most extraordinary director I've ever worked with. Inspired, inspiring — it's like that thing that rock stars do when they know they're going to be caught — a trust fall." And, as for her passionate governmental plea — a monologue that nightly brings the house down: "Larry wrote an extraordinary speech that's full of all the passion and rage that exists, I think, in any intelligent, aware person so I don't think it's me — it's Larry."

Jim Parsons from "The Big Bang Theory" on CBS brings plenty of snap, crackle and pop to his Broadway debut as the flighty, fun but surprisingly steely Tommy Boatwright, a health-clinic worker given to putting his bosses in their proper places. "There's the obvious fun aspect of him in the whole Southern bitchiness, but honestly much more fun — for me, at least — is: he's so optimistic, and he so feels that good things can be done. And that is the most rewarding thing in the world — to feel like I get to help be that voice in this company of people. This character is that voice going, 'Get your s**t together! You can fight it! You can work together!' Part of it is that I admire that ability so much. I don't do that in real life. It's not that I couldn't be a peacemaker, but I don't get my hands dirty. And the way he comes in and manhandles the situation — in his own manhandling type of way (there's a touch of mothering to it, too) — shows he's just not afraid. Or if he is afraid — I'm sure he is in some ways — he handles it by going in further. There's no retreat."

His feeling for finally being on Broadway is full of "all those hard-to-put-words-to. It's something that hits me again and again. In the day-to-day-of-it, I don't feel about it, but tonight at curtain call when they brought out Joel and George and Larry, I thought, 'My God! I'm going to cry right now.' It's little moments. I shed a tear — I'm being serious — the very first preview. I left the stage in that letter-envelop-stuffing scene, and I cried a little bit. I didn't even think about it. 'Oh, it's your first scene on Broadway.' I'm really touched by it. Just to be a part of it — that's what's hard to sink in."

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