The Millennium Recedes: Looking Back at Angels in America

The Signature Theatre and Michael Grief remount Tony Kushner's seminal play

By any measure, the revival of Tony Kushner's Angels in America, 17 years after its Broadway premiere, is a big event: big in size—its two parts run a total of six hours and 40 minutes; big in scope, covering every topic from the ozone layer to the hero's T-cell count; and, most of all, big in ambition. Kushner's aim, to create what might be called a metaphysical history of late-20th-century America from a gay perspective, is everywhere visible. Angels covers a lot of ground, and offers a lot to take in. Those who've called it "influential" surely mean some other word, possibly "induplicable." What artist has had the brass balls to try emulating Kushner's giant monolith? Angels is what it is; there's nothing else even remotely like it.

So what is it, exactly? Here the arguments begin, since Kushner's freewheeling inventions offer theatergoers so many different kinds of access. He supplies a helpful clue with his subtitle: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes. My musical dictionary defines a fantasia as a composition "in which the 'free flight of fancy' prevails over considerations of form or style." In the mid 19th century, Schumann and Brahms composed notable fantasias—while their contemporary, Karl Marx, was evolving political and economic ideas that have left their stamp on some of Kushner's characters, notably Louis Ironson (Zachary Quinto).

Musically speaking, Louis's tormented relationship with his lover, Prior Walter (Christian Borle), constitutes the work's main theme, shifting keys and developing ever wilder dissonances as mounting stress over Prior's AIDS drives the two men apart. Events produced by that stress ultimately reunite them, but not back in the original key: Their lives have been extensively reharmonized through much additional thematic material, like the chance workplace encounter that links Louis to the young lawyer Joe Pitt (Bill Heck)—Mormon, Republican, and closeted gay.

AIDS, Mormons, modern theater history
Richard Termine
AIDS, Mormons, modern theater history

Joe's story links them, on one side, to his indomitable mother, Hannah (Robin Bartlett), and his unhappy, Valium-addicted, "jack-Mormon" wife, Harper (Zoe Kazan). On the other, it pulls these fictional figures into American political history, New York–style, through Joe's mentor, Roy Cohn (Frank Wood). A homophobic queer dying of AIDS, which he denies having, the ultra-crooked, ultra-connected, ultra-conservative Cohn is haunted, in his dying hours, by the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg (Bartlett again), like him a historical figure, electrocuted, partly through Cohn's connivance, for a crime she didn't commit (in which her husband, also electrocuted, probably had a small share). Kushner further links Louis and Prior to Cohn through their ultra-politicized "ex-ex-drag queen" friend, Belize (Billy Porter), Cohn's night nurse. Belize speaks for all the disillusioned people of color who, unlike Kushner's fellow Jews, guilt-racked Louis and guilt-denying Cohn, resist assimilation to "this melting pot where nothing melted."

Angels, central to the work visually, play only a peripheral dramatic role: One appeared to Mormonism's founder, Joseph Smith; Emma Stebbins's sculpture of one graces Central Park's Bethesda fountain, where Louis and Prior socialize. Jacob's wrestling match with an angel, illustrated in a Biblical storybook, awakened Joe's homosexual awareness. And the angel (Robin Weigert) that crashes through Prior's ceiling, saluting him as a "prophet," turns out to be summoning him to his own doom, which he refuses. Stimulating sex and death, angels are all extra-human transformative forces; Americans seemingly acknowledge their power only under extreme compulsion. ("There are no angels in America," says Louis.)

As this equivocal image suggests, Angels chooses quirkily among its materials. We hear much about Louis's family, but little about Prior's (even though two of his ancestors—prior Priors—appear in his visions). Joe Pitt might have been another play's dramatic fulcrum: the closeted gay who summons the strength to come out to his mother and his wife. But the act's consequences are murky: Joe never fully confronts his conservative politics; his fascination with Roy Cohn, odd to start with, continues. Louis, who might be expected to welcome Joe's newly discovered self, instead hectors him about deeds in his closeted past, after which everyone simply drops him; even his mother apparently stops caring, instead evolving a new life with Prior's circle. She gets the angel's kiss; Harper gets off Valium and gets Joe's credit card; Joe gets limbo.

In this and other respects, Angels hasn't revealed its flaws by "dating"; rather, it's become what it set out to be: a piece of its time. Like the leftover AZT that Belize philanthropically steals from the dead Roy Cohn's refrigerated stash, mention of the play carries shuddery memories of an era and a consciousness vastly different from today's. On AIDS, on gay rights, on global warming, on America's and the world's political map, the issues persist, but the ground on which we discuss them has shifted astonishingly. To title one segment of a play "Perestroika" and make one of its characters "the world's oldest living Bolshevik" seems almost archaic. Kushner's angels fret because they see Chernobyl coming; nowadays, Chernobyls occur every few weeks, courtesy of unrestrained capitalism, as with BP, or of Communism's decaying leftovers, as in Hungary.

This simply means that Kushner's play survives, its vibrant high points and natteringly wordy weak spots intact, less as a living work than as a monument of its era, a little stilted for our taste but still noble. Michael Greif's new production deploys a mixed bag of techniques to keep it lively, with mixed success. Wood's realistically creepy Roy Cohn misses the vaudeville flamboyance that abets Cohn's appeal to novices like Joe Pitt, while Heck's movingly conveyed inner torments aren't balanced by the outward appeal that marks Joe as a comer. Borle's Prior, in contrast, is almost too flamboyant, all musical-theater surface energy in lieu of pain, making an odd match for Quinto's slow-building, somber Louis. Contrariwise, Porter's expert cabaret showmanship slides him with perfect ease into Belize's glittery, sardonic attitude. Bartlett is splendidly doughty as both Joe's mother and Ethel Rosenberg, while Kazan's frenetic little-girl Harper makes strong character sense, though the medication involved seems more like uppers than Valium.

mfeingold@villagevoice.com

 
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