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Latest Chapter of TV’s AIDS Chronicle Goes Back to the Beginning, as HBO Presents ‘The Normal Heart’
May 23, 2014  | By David Bianculli
 

HBO’s new, reworked version of AIDS activist Larry Kramer’s 1985 play, The Normal Heart, is adapted by Kramer himself, and has a different, less strident tone. It has to…

When Kramer’s play first was mounted in New York, at the Public Theater, it was dramatizing events of the previous four years, as an unknown disease began ripping through the gay population of the city, and beyond, in almost exponential fashion. It eventually was identified as the HIV virus, whose complications included AIDS – which, at first, was a virtual death sentence.

Kramer, in reshaping and revising The Normal Heart for television, makes it less of an urgent cry for help and more of a history lesson. But all good history has lessons to teach us about today, and this HBO telemovie (premiering Sunday at 9 p.m. ET) looks unblinkingly at many issues that are just as topical and controversial in 2014: heath-care limitations, insurance coverages, even gay marriage.

The Normal Heart stars Mark Ruffalo and Julia Roberts, each of whom is playing thinly veiled versions of real-life participants in the early AIDS story. Ruffalo plays Ned Weeks, an author and activist who’s basically the alter ego of Kramer himself, and Roberts plays Emma Brookner, a doctor with polio who’s based on pioneering HIV researcher and physician Linda Laubenstein.

Ryan Murphy, co-creator of TV’s Glee and American Horror Story, directs HBO’s The Normal Heart, which features, among its cast members, veterans of the 2011 Tony-winning stage revival, including Jim Parsons (The Big Bang Theory) and Joe Mantello. New scenes bookend the drama, and much of what’s in between is revised or replaced significantly – but usually to a positive effect.

Parsons, playing an activist weary of attending yet one more funeral for a gay friend, gives a eulogy that is haunting because it’s so focused, and restrained, and full of regret and helplessness. And perhaps because Parsons played the same role on Broadway, he doesn’t just nail the speech. He nails it with the equivalent of a pneumatic nail gun.

There’s more to say about this telemovie – much more – but I say a lot of it in my review on NPR’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross, where you can also hear part of Parsons’ speech, as well as a scene featuring Ruffalo and Roberts. You can hear it on the Fresh Air website – then make plans to watch The Normal Heart on Sunday.

 
 
 
 
 
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