Joe Mantello and John Benjamin Hickey in the revival of Larry Kramer's “The Normal Heart'.” | JOAN MARCUS
Anyone lucky enough to have seen the original production of “The Normal Heart,” Larry Kramer’s fiery polemic about the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, knows there’s nothing normal about it.
Staged by the Public Theater in 1985, it was the first major play devoted to the nascent, deadly pandemic and served as a frantic call to arms — breaking the wall of silence built up by petrified, homophobic doctors, politicians, and news organizations — that may have actually helped contain the course of the disease.
Not long after “The Normal Heart” debuted, the New York Times, which is roundly taken to task in the drama, ramped up its AIDS reporting and Surgeon General C. Everett Koop finally called for AIDS education in schools. In October 1987, President Ronald Reagan, after years of hiding his head in the sand, first uttered the word AIDS in a public speech. ACT UP was born around that time, too — spearheaded by Kramer, who had also co-founded Gay Men’s Health Crisis years earlier.
John Benjamin Hickey extols the play that changed the face of AIDS forever
And now, a quarter-century later, the play is being mounted on Broadway for the first time, with a stellar ensemble led by the actor/ director Joe Mantello (“Angels in America” and far too many credits to list here) as the outraged protagonist Ned Weeks, essentially Kramer’s alter ego. John Benjamin Hickey (“Love! Valour! Compassion!”), portrays his closeted boyfriend, Felix, who contracts the dreaded “gay cancer.” The all-star cast also includes Ellen Barkin, Patrick Breen, Luke Macfarlane, Lee Pace, and Jim Parsons
The revival is co-directed by Joel Grey, who played Ned Weeks in the original run and is now on Broadway in “Anything Goes,” and George C. Wolfe (“Angels in America”).
But can the work pack the same emotional wallop?
The scruffily gregarious Hickey, one of the relatively few openly gay actors working steadily on stage and television today, believes so strongly in the power of the play that he took on the role despite being smack in the middle of his shooting schedule for Showtime’s “The Big C,” where he plays opposite Laura Linney as her brother.
Gay City News recently caught up with Hickey between rehearsals on a Saturday afternoon in the West Village to chat about the renewed relevance of Kramer’s masterwork.
DAVID KENNERLEY: How did you get involved in the production?
JOHN BENJAMIN HICKEY: Last October, I was asked by Joel Grey to do a one-night benefit reading for [the Actors Fund and] Friends in Deed. The material was so alive, I fell deeply in love with the play. I was stunned at how prescient it seemed.
Great people were involved — Joe Mantello is an old friend who’s directed me in several plays. I was thrilled I would play his love interest, so I got on board. That reading turned into what this is now.
DK: It’s been over 25 years since the play premiered. Is the power diminished?
JBH: That’s up to each person who sees it, but I feel it’s anything but a period piece. I recall that night [of the benefit reading], the unbelievable tidal wave of emotion that was not just based on reliving that horrible time. It was the realization of how relevant the issues still are. AIDS not just being a “gay cancer” but a heterosexual threat as well. It deals with issues of discrimination, healthcare coverage, gay marriage and partnership, and legal contracts between men detailing what they can leave to each other.
I was stunned at how undiminished the power is. Actually, it could be argued that it’s even more powerful than ever.
DK: What has changed in the gay political landscape since then?
JBH: I’m not sure. The story is nothing short of a Greek tragedy, a flawed hero’s journey. In Ned Weeks, Larry doesn’t paint an attractive picture of himself — we see warts and all. There was such dire need to find a strong voice in gay politics, and finally a voice emerged.
It’s like we were at a party where everybody was dancing but nobody saw death walk in. Some 20 years after Stonewall, just when our culture was beginning to show its pride, this thing happened and robbed us. We stopped celebrating and started fighting.
DK: So something good came out of it, because it galvanized the community?
JBH: Absolutely. Freedom has a price. The world spins so fast that I doubt a lot of young people are aware of what Larry did for our community — he opened the door and charged in. Today, a new generation walks in instead of having to beat it down. That kind of freedom breeds a kind of apathy.
DK: Or lack of a sense of urgency?
JBH: Yeah. God knows HIV/ AIDS is still very much with us. People think of HIV as a manageable disease like diabetes, and it makes them less responsible. I think anybody can relate to one person standing up and saying, “No more!” Look at the uprising in Egypt, literally sparked by that man who set himself on fire. It gave birth to a revolution. It’s the story of democracy that says, “I demand to be heard. I will not to be oppressed into silence that equals death.”
DK: So despite the rage and death, is the play hopeful?
JBH: Yes, more than anything else, it’s profoundly hopeful. It’s about being alive, it’s about being heard, being seen, being a part of the fabric of human society. Like a great work of art, its heart still beats in an exciting way.
DK: Tell me about your character, Felix.
JBH: Felix is reporter for the Style section of the Times. Ned tries to coax him to write an article about the disease because he knows he’s gay, but Felix is scared. This is a time when a lot of people were in the closet. Every single character works inside a construct that limits them, keeps them inside of a box. Whether they don’t want to be out at work and lose their job. Whether they are conservative and don’t understand the gay community. The only exception is Ned, who comes along and blows the boxes wide open. They might hate him for it or love him for it.
Either way, everybody knows how to move forward. [Felix] falls in love with Ned. It’s a beautiful love story about two men who’d never found the right person before. They find each other in this crucible of time, though the timing’s not great for either of them.
DK: Has the play been modified from the original?
JBH: No, the script has not been updated in any way. At one point in rehearsal, someone suggested we change the line, “Do you take this man to be your lover” to “your husband.” We did not. What’s different is the scope. It’s not a conventional, full-scale show, but more like a pure presentation. We don’t have an extensive set. It exists out of its time period.
DK: Many have dismissed Larry Kramer as a Chicken Little lunatic. Is he a misunderstood genius?
JBH: I’m sure Larry is a million different things, just as Ned Weeks is in the play. To me, he’s a phenomenal playwright who has written a work that exists for the ages. I’m sure the people he pissed off will still be pissed off at him. And the people who owe him what I think we all owe him will be grateful to see this play on Broadway. How extraordinary that he wrote it while the nightmare was happening. This great work of art, produced with no hindsight.
DK: Back then, the media were accused of turning their backs on AIDS. What about now?
JBH: In news cycles, one thing is always replacing another. Tsunami coverage gives way to government shutdown coverage. Is it getting enough attention? Absolutely not. The play is an impassioned, furious reminder of where we were, and where we are today. Some 75 million people worldwide are now infected with HIV/ AIDS.
DK: And I just read in Gay City News that each year in America, an estimated 26,000 gay men are infected with HIV each year.
JBH: Wow. I didn’t realize that.
DK: Do you think Broadway audiences are ready for a stripped down, scathing drama about AIDS?
JBH: Your guess is as good as mine. I can only give myself as fully as I can to this extraordinary play. I hope that the passion felt at the reading translates to eight shows a week. New York is very sophisticated theatergoing town. People are very excited about seeing it on Broadway. So I think people are going to love it.
DK: Does the play serve up any big message people can walk away with?
JBH: [Pause] That man is responsible for his fellow man. That we have to stand up for each other, take care of each other, help each other survive.
And we have to love each other. At the end of the day it’s a deeply profound love story, filled with sentiment, not an ounce of sentimentality. Filled with the love of life.
DK: You have the distinction of being in “Love! Valour! Compassion!” in 1994. What was that like?
JBH: That was my first Broadway show, the first huge hit I was lucky to be in. We figured a play about a bunch of homosexuals — that was ONLY about a bunch of homosexuals — had no global reach. It had no politics, except the politics of love and friendship. We thought it would have the most specific audience. But the older and more heterosexual they were, the more deeply they loved it. It was the time of my life. The play went on to Broadway and won the Tony for best play. It was directed by Joe Mantello, and now almost two decades later we’re playing lovers. It’s a brilliant full circle.
DK: Another highlight was “Cabaret,” right?
JBH: Yes, with Natasha Richardson and Alan Cumming — a staggering production. I thought was I going to be a big musical star, but I forgot one little fact — I can’t sing at all.
DK: You’ve also had success with TV, now on “The Big C.” How does it feel to be doing a second season?
JBH: Brilliant. It’s so much fun. Since I’m doing both projects at the same time, I have to take each day as it comes, and have a laser-like focus because both jobs are worlds apart.
DK: And yet, both projects involve life-threatening illnesses.
JBH: You’re absolutely right. I hadn’t thought about it from that perspective.
DK: The chemistry you have with Laura Linney is incredible. Are you friends off set as well?
JBH: We’ve known each other for 25 years; we went to drama school together, and now we’re neighbors up in Litchfield County, Connecticut. When you work in TV, you don’t have time to do much homework. We’ve been through a lot together and have a real shorthand. I’m glad to hear that translates on the show. Working with Laura is such a sublime gift as you can imagine. It’s an embarrassment of riches.
When first I told Laura about this opportunity, she said, “We’ll figure out a way for you to do both jobs. You can’t not do ‘The Normal Heart.’ You just don’t say no to Larry Kramer.”
THE NORMAL HEART |Golden Theatre, 252 W. 45th St. | Through Jul. 10: Tue. at 7 p.m.; Wed.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Sat. at 2 p.m.; Sun. at 2 p.m. & 7 p.m. | $26.50-$116.50 at telecharge.com or 212-239-6200