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.
'I wasn't aware of its impact until I was part of it in front of a live audience, and without having experienced that, I might have wondered, with absolutely no disrespect to the play, if now was the time to do it,' Hickey says. 'But the play has such extraordinary immediacy'and seems to transcend its time and place'that I think there is no better time than now. The play is also about gay marriage. It's also about health care. It's about societies who have been oppressed standing up and saying, 'No more tyranny. No more oppression.' '
Joe Mantello, now best known for his Tony-winning directing on Take Me Out, Wicked, and Assassins, costars with Hickey as Ned Weeks, returning to acting for the first time since his portrayal of Louis Ironson in the original 1993 production of Angels in America. Mantello also directed Hickey in his Broadway debut, the 1995 production of Terrence McNally's Love! Valour! Compassion! The pair provide the emotional heart of the show and cement it as a love story.
'I hope our chemistry is palpable because I've loved Joe as my dear friend for many, many years, so to be able to have that built-in love and affection and sense of understanding of each other is invaluable,' Hickey says before adding, 'I think it was also such an extraordinary marriage of actor and part for Joe and Ned. It's like breathing for him. I think he'd be the first to admit he really understands Ned's hotheaded nature, and Joe's also so intelligent and so winning and so warm.'
Refreshingly, however, the parallels between Hickey and the closeted Felix aren't so easily drawn. 'I came out of school and came out as an actor when I was very young because of my heroes. It was as simple as just wanting to be a part of the cool kids' club, and to me the cool kids were Tony Kushner, Craig Lucas, John Robin Baitz and Paula Vogel, and they were all out, and they were all working and doing the kinds of things I wanted to do. I felt like if I wanted their respect, I had to stand up and be who I was.'
The Normal Heart's 12-week run begins previews on April 19 at the John Golden Theatre. For more info and to purchase tickets, head to the show's official website. The second season of The Big C premieres June 27 on Showtime.
"Like" The Normal Heart on Facebook by clicking here. If by April 27 the show has 10,000 "likes," (at the time of this posting they were at 9,100) the producers will contribute $10,000 to Freedom to Marry, dedicated to the fight for marriage equality nationwide.