REVIEW: A Transcendent and Timely “Angels in America”

REVIEW: A Transcendent and Timely “Angels in America”

The prophet has arrived.  The great work has begun.  “Angels in America” is back on Broadway in a transcendent and timely production imported from the National Theatre in London.  It sold out there in a day, and I suspect this limited engagement might, too.  A recommendation: stop reading and get tickets.

Like the Bethesda Angel in Central Park that figures in the final scenes, Tony Kushner’s 1993 Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece—easily included among the greatest plays ever written and located atop the short list of the most important plays of the last 25 years—is made of some of the heaviest stuff on earth, but it is winged.  A soaring, two play epic that is a seven-and-a-half hour marathon for actors and audiences alike, this new, unified repertory production of the two parts, “Millennium Approaches” and “Perestroika”, is sleekly staged by Marianne Elliot (“War Horse”, “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time”) and features a superb ensemble cast, including some names you know—Nathan Lane, Andrew Garfield, and Lee Pace—and some names you should know—Denise Gough, James McArdle, and Nathan Stewart-Jarrett. 

Set over the course of two months in 1985 and 1986 (with an epilogue in 1990), the AIDS epidemic is central to the story—two characters have the disease—but it is a mistake to think that “Angels” is solely about AIDS.  Mr. Kushner subtitled the play “A Gay Fantasia on National Themes”, and he meant it—especially those “national themes”.  The play, a symphony, is alternatingly about history, democracy, race, spirituality, equality, justice, freedom, change, and love.  Far from being a depressing slog, it is an affirmation of life and a meditation on the painful process of progress.  It is empathy personified and a notable piece of political writing and theory.  And it is also brilliantly funny, from start to finish.

One immutable aspect of the work is its sheer size and scope, qualities that are emphasized in this grand staging, replete with loud, epic music by Adrian Sutton to accompany scene changes.  Ms. Elliott’s use of the space, in tandem with set designer Ian MacNeil, is masterful.  For most of “Millennium Approaches”, three turntables rotate—offering Hoppereqsue glimpses of voyeurism—to facilitate immediate scene transitions with minimal use of furniture and props, and the aid of trapdoors.  The muted pastel greens, blues, and grays and contrasting quadrilateral shapes softly evoke mid-1980s design, broadly unspecific but fitting for the constant shift of setting.  The costumes by Nicky Gillibrand, though, feel too modern, with anachronistic fits and colors.

Despite the “sheer size of the terrain” and grandness of the themes, most of the play consists of intimate scenes, mostly duets, rarely involving more than three characters at once.  Ms. Elliott’s vision capitalizes on the increasingly fantastic nature of the text.  The character of Ethel Rosenberg foreshadows that “history is about to crack wide open”.  As the play progresses, the strictures of settings give way, the space unbounding, cracking wide open.  “Perestroika” plays out on near-operatic terms (fitting, given the recent opera treatment of “Angels”), outlined in neon lights.  The stage of the Neil Simon Theatre has never looked bigger.  This physical production can feel coolly clinical at times—almost too sleek—but the overall aesthetic is striking and memorable.  In hour seven, the staging and magic still surprise, a magnificent feat and testament to both the writing and its execution.

Mr. Kushner began working on the play in 1988 as a commission for the now-shuttered Eureka Theatre Company in San Francisco.  Explicitly molded as a reaction to the Reagan era and the horror of the HIV/AIDS crisis, “Angels” is a play about its time, but it is not just of its time.  This new production proves, perhaps more clearly than ever, that those “national themes” are evergreen.  An inescapable fact of theatre is that it happens at a specific time and place.  Every performance is different, every audience different, and as the play reveals its myriad meanings and messages, it does so against a specific context, both shaped by public consciousness and helping to, in turn, shape public consciousness. 

Oddly enough, this is the first time that “Angels” has played New York while a Republican sits in the Oval Office, and a most odious one at that.  The character of Louis (a veiled Tony Kushner) calls Reagan “the American animus”; I’d love to hear what words he’d share about Donald Trump.  When “Angels” premiered on Broadway in 1993—following productions in San Francisco, London, and Los Angeles—its context was the election of Bill Clinton, the “end of history”, and the nascent though burgeoning emergence of the LGBT community as a political force following a decade of people literally fighting for their lives in the face of a plague and a government whose silence and inaction was motivated by the intense hatred that lies just beneath mere tolerance.

In 2017 in London and now 2018 in New York, “Angels” meets a divisive and fragmented moment in national and international discourse, characterized by populism and Trumpism, with perilous threats to democracy and human rights on the rise.  The real-life character of super-lawyer Roy Cohn, described as “the polestar of human evil” and “the worst human being who ever lived”, is especially relevant.  Mr. Cohn, a closeted homosexual, was , of course, Donald Trump’s lawyer, consigliere, and mentor until his disbarment and death of complications from AIDS in 1986.  The savage lying and bullying tactics at work every day in the White House now are the product of the education given to a young Trump by Mr. Cohn then.  It is no mistake that Mr. Kushner chose to place this character into the play, and to give him this line: “when you want to look at the heart of modern conservatism, you look at me.”  The president reportedly recently asked: “Where’s my Roy Cohn?”

Popular dialogue about race, gender, sexual orientation, and privilege also newly animate our experience of the text in 2018, as does rising knowledge about Mormonism (hello, Mitt Romney) and increased political activism by way of the resistance movement.  In the hands of Ms. Elliott’s cast, Mr. Kushner’s words feel prophetic, but also brim with hope, and an irresistible poetry.  If there is a “star” in “Angels”—which is, truly, an ensemble piece—it would be the role of Prior Walter, originated by Stephen Spinella (who won the Tony Award) and now played by Andrew Garfield.  A gay man and former drag queen struck with AIDS at the age of 30, and abandoned by his lover, Louis, Prior is visited by an angel who imparts a prophecy of stasis and anti-migration, one he hilariously then movingly rejects.  His arc forms the through-line of the play, the spine from which all other characters hang, directly or once-removed. 

As Louis Ironson, Prior’s ex-boyfriend, James McArdle manages to make Mr. Kushner’s bounty of words—ones I know nearly by heart—sound as if he has just thought of them, with halting speech patterns that evince a mind at work.  He’s fragile and nebbish, but winning and entrancing, utterly impeccable. 

As Joe Pitt, a “sensitive, gay, Republican, Mormon, lawyer” who later has an affair with Louis, and Harper Pitt, his “sex-starved, pill-popping” wife who meets Prior in hallucinations, Lee Pace and Denise Gough are a stunning duo, richly nuanced and breathtakingly original in their takes on these roles.  Ms. Gough, in particular, plays the character with the least development in the play, but manages to rise above Harper’s madness to make it compelling and her journey rewarding.

Nathan Stewart-Jarrett, as Belize—Prior and Louis’ African American friend, and ex-ex-drag queen who is also Roy Cohn’s hospital nurse—brings great humanity to a character who is ultimately the heart of the play, the vessel of its lessons in empathy and forgiveness.  Belize is tough, and smart, and funny.  Mr. Stewart-Jarrett nails these multi-dimensions to make Belize a real person, not just a comedic sidekick or black foil to the white characters he serves and helps.

Despite their (literal) marquee status, Mr. Lane and Mr. Garfield’s performances, though excellent, are, in my estimation, the less successful of the lot.  Mr. Lane, whom I adore, looks and sounds nothing like Roy Cohn.  In 1993, Mr. Cohn was no doubt well known to audiences.  In 2018, not so much.  Divorced from this association and the everyday reality of the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and 1990s—while still remaining immediately relevant—“Angels” also assumes a status as a history play, as Terry Teachout of the Wall Street Journal has suggested, in which the role of Roy Cohn is like Henry V or Richard III, with fidelity to known sound and look more freely giving way to dramatic interpretation. 

That said, Mr. Lane’s interpretation is rarely as sharp or frightening as the play commands, slipping into his characteristic, giggling laughs.  His Roy is no menace; certainly ill-tempered, but never despicable.  This could be a casualty of a beloved comic actor slipping into a villainous role, an audience reference beyond his control, but when the audience already knows less about the historical Roy Cohn, merely as a product of time, the actor must work harder to fill in the gaps to make him “terminal, crazy, and mean”.  Mr. Lane, it turns out, is too likeable for the task—a pain you deal with, rather than a monster you fear.

For his part, Mr. Garfield gives a full-bodied performance that is fierce and committed, but too much of it feels put-on and overdone, especially his high-pitched, almost cartoonish voice.  As a gay man, I spend a lot of time with gay men.  I can dish and swish with the best of them, and certainly it would be absurd to posit that there is only one correct way to inhabit a gay character onstage (or that gay characters can only be played by gay actors), but Mr. Garfield’s Prior borders on caricature, well-intentioned but inauthentic.

As a Rabbi, Henry (Roy’s doctor), Ethel Rosenberg, and Prelapsarianov (the world’s oldest living Bolshevik), Susan Brown is excellent, a veritable changeling.  As Hannah Pitt (Joe’s Mormon mother who befriends Prior), she is crotchety and cold, giving a sturdy performance that is rather underwhelming, perhaps because the memory of Meryl Streep—who played the role on film—looms large. 

The Angel (Amanda Lawrence), but for one scintillating moment of wire-aided levitation, does not fly in a traditional sense; instead, she is accompanied by a cluster of “Angel Shadows” who manipulate her giant wings and lift her motley, American Flag skirted frame about.  An unsurprising choice from the director of “War Horse”, it is also highly effective staging that underscores the heightened theatricality of the whole play (even if robbing it of some potential magic), never more present than in the Angel’s scenes.  Ms. Lawrence, who also plays Prior’s nurse, Hannah’s real estate agent, a homeless woman, and a Mormon pioneer-woman mannequin, is frighteningly good. 

With the possible exception of “Noises Off”, there is no play I know better than “Angels”, having visited the text repeatedly and played Roy Cohn in a college production.  This review is inadequate to address the totality of the play, its meaning and significance in the broader landscape, and the endless facets of the terrific production at hand.  I could write a book, and, in fact, Isaac Butler and Dan Kois did.  An oral history of “Angels” is beautifully captured in “The World Only Spins Forward: The Ascent of Angels in America”, which was released in February.  I highly recommend it as a helpful compendium to expand the experience of seeing the play.

While the 2003 HBO miniseries has the benefit of accessibility and the permanence of being on film, like the works of Shakespeare, there will never be a definitive version of “Angels in America”.  It is meant to breathe, to live, and be embodied and enriched by time.  That is what makes interaction with it so exciting and precious; to attend “Angels” to be a part of something, a social, political, and theatrical tradition. 

In the final monologue, the house lights slowly rise, stripping away division to merge the world of the stage and the world of the audience, as Prior says:

This disease will be the end of many of us, but not nearly all, and the dead will be commemorated and will struggle on with the living, and we are not going away. We won't die secret deaths anymore. The world only spins forward. We will be citizens. The time has come. Bye now. You are fabulous creatures, each and every one. And I bless you: More Life. The Great Work Begins.

And so it does, in more ways than one.

Bottom Line: Tony Kushner’s 1993 Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece “Angels in America” is back on Broadway in a transcendent and timely production sleekly staged by Marianne Elliot and featuring a superb ensemble cast; one of the greatest plays ever written and certainly the most important of the past 25 years, get tickets now or live to regret it.

Angels in America
Neil Simon Theatre
250 West 52nd Street
New York, NY 10019

Running Time: 7 hours, 30 minutes total
            Part One: “Millennium Approaches”, 3 hours and 30 minutes (2 intermissions)
            Part Two: “Perestroika”, 4 hours (2 intermissions)
Opening Night: March 25, 2018
Final Performance: July 1, 2018
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