Catching Up With John Benjamin Hickey
By Bill Keith
When The Normal Heart opened at New York's Public Theater in 1985, just three years after the term AIDS was introduced, New York Times critic Frank Rich wrote that playwright and activist Larry Kramer 'starts off angry, soon gets furious, and then skyrockets into sheer rage.' Twenty-six years later, John Benjamin Hickey, starring in the show's current and first Broadway run, has a similar reaction: 'It's Howl filled with justifiable fury. It's a universal cry for justice and love, that unless you are heard you disappear. And in the case of this play, you literally disappear.'
Kramer -- who founded the Gay Men's Health Crisis in 1982, then was ousted by its members in 1983 -- wrote the semiautobiographical play as a criticism of the government, the medical profession, the press, and both gay and straight people's failure to respond to the AIDS crisis adequately. He takes particularly acute aim at Mayor Ed Koch, The New York Times, and GMHC board members.
Hickey, whose day job has him appearing opposite Laura Linney on the Showtime series The Big C, plays the role of Felix Turner, a closeted New York Times reporter and the lover of Ned Weeks, the stand-in for Kramer. 'One of the most extraordinary things about what Larry Kramer did is that he wrote this masterpiece of dramatic literature and produced it while [the crisis] was developing,' Hickey says. 'As an actor, you have to remember that nobody knows that the monster is about to get bigger and bigger and bigger and bigger. It doesn't have a name yet. The play is a lot of things, and it's terrifying as much as it is anything else.'
The current incarnation of the show began last October as a one-night staged reading to benefit the Actors Fund and Friends in Deed. Directed by Joel Grey, who had joined the 1985 production after the original Ned was diagnosed with AIDS, the reading raised $150,000 that night, but it also prompted its performers and producers to consider bringing The Normal Heart to Broadway for the first time.