Theater

Twenty-Five Years Later, Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America” Is Still Big, Still Extraordinary, and Still Problematic

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So much has changed since Angels in America premiered on Broadway a quarter-century ago. Say the name “Kushner” today, and most Americans will assume you’re referring not to a major playwright, but to a real estate company with allegedly questionable practices and a notable White House connection. The word “perestroika,” once so widespread in political punditry, now evokes only a wincing nostalgia for a lost opportunity in a country that has become world democracy’s chief enemy. AZT, once a scarce and desperately sought-after experimental drug, has been supplanted in the drug “cocktails” that keep AIDS patients alive by newer and subtler retrovirals. And AIDS itself, though still a terrifying menace to the gay community, has altered its profile, its devastation now most often spread by ignorance and prejudice, the way Mike Pence’s bigoted policies helped it spread in southern Indiana.

Yes, much in the world has changed since Tony Kushner’s two-part epic took Broadway by storm in 1993, or even since its Signature Theatre–produced reappearance Off-Broadway eight years ago. But much — to the play’s benefit, and society’s detriment — has stayed the same, or even gotten worse. Homophobia, one of the script’s principal thematic threads, is now enshrined as an official plank in the Republican Party platform. The worries about the ozone layer that, in the play, fuel Harper Pitt’s Valium-induced Antarctic fantasies have intensified, with the Antarctic ice shelf itself fast disappearing. And if Roy Cohn, the daimon whose spewing hatred energizes so many of Kushner’s scenes, were to come back as a revenant today, he would scarcely have time to vilify the barely remembered Ethel Rosenberg. He would be too busy pointing with pride at his prize mentoree: that walking disaster, our current commander in chief.

Indeed, it may be that nothing in Kushner’s two-evening work has dated more severely than the cautious optimism of its final scene. None of the characters, except the despicable Cohn, has died, but all the play’s couples have broken up; everyone has been uprooted from his or her home, profession, and/or way of life. And — now that the next world has stopped pressuring Prior to die — “there are” (as Louis says early on) “no angels in America,” except for reassuringly solid stone sculptures like the one over Central Park’s Bethesda Fountain.

That stone angel does not appear in the new Broadway production, directed by Marianne Elliott, an import from Britain’s Royal National Theatre. Elliott largely eschews representational scenery, though a play with so many sickroom scenes can hardly avoid having beds onstage. Ian MacNeil’s austere sets, kept in deep shadow by Paule Constable’s lighting, have their framework demarcated by bars of what’s either fluorescent or neon light (I can’t tell which); at some moments between scenes, segmented settings move about, actorless, with only these bars lit, as if this were a work of pure abstraction, its human characters purely incidental. The Bethesda Fountain angel of the last scene is a mere spray of purply-blue neon.

Elliott’s production seems simultaneously to succumb to this tendency toward abstraction and fight it ferociously — at times even too ferociously. Unlike the sparsely decorated set, Adrian Sutton’s music is laid on thickly, even vehemently, in a variety of modes. Sometimes, it gives the play the ominous underscoring of some forgotten 1950s film noir; elsewhere, it heads off into the eerie electronic realms of that era’s sci-fi thrillers — all in addition to the thunder, drums, and trumpets that herald the arrival of the play’s Angel (Amanda Lawrence), summoning the ailing Prior Walter (Andrew Garfield) to his “prophetic” doom. Like the soundscore, the acting it accompanies tends to push toward the frenetic. A fair amount of Angels’ script — Roy Cohn’s diatribes, Harper Pitt’s furious attacks on her wayward husband — do invite shouting, but a work this long and this complex cannot be played at its highest pitch so much of the time without starting to diminish its effect, and that often seems to happen here. Scenes that were once full of lively nuance become dead spots through the constant yelling. The operatic “quartet” late in Part 1, in which the two central couples (Prior and Louis, Joe and Harper) break up, turns into a near-continuous shriek.

The revelation of what suddenly seem to be so many barren patches in the script is distressing because it seems to enlarge flaws that Angels in America has always been acknowledged to have. To say so is not to underrate its achievement. Huge and extravagant, Kushner’s play sprawls across a multitude of themes, actions, historical events, and aesthetic strategies. The enthusiasm when it arrived was partly a matter of its size and scope, a joy in a time when, it seemed, American writers were reluctant to write large, bold, extravagant plays. And Kushner did more than simply reopen our theater’s door to artistic ambition. He pushed AIDS and issues of gay identity to the forefront of the American conversation, at least as far as the theater was concerned, and he did it while linking them to almost everything else Americans can argue about: race, religion, money, politics, history, the environment, our nation’s place in the world. If you feel he did this unsystematically, well, his subtitle — “A gay fantasia on national themes” — told you that he would. By definition, fantasias are unsystematic.

Given that approach, and the work’s highly politicized context, along with its ambitious scope, it mattered less in 1993 that the text offered problematic stretches. Within the sprawl, the action is almost tidily symmetrical: The love affair of two gay men, Louis (James McArdle) and Prior, is broken up by the onset of Prior’s HIV, which makes Louis retreat in terror. At roughly the same time, the shaky marriage of the clean-cut young Mormon lawyer Joe Pitt (Lee Pace) and his troubled “Jack Mormon” wife, Harper (Denise Gough), is riven by a combination of culture shock — Utah folk having a hard time coping with New York — and Joe’s increasing, guilt-ridden awareness of his homosexuality. Joe and Louis briefly end up as sex partners; Prior, tormented by inexplicable angelic forebodings, briefly makes common cause in fantasyland with Harper and, on a more realistic plane, with Joe’s indomitable Mormon mother, Hannah (Susan Brown), who has given up her life in Salt Lake City and come east in response to her son’s telephoned confession of his sexuality.

This crisscrossing quartet (or quintet, if you include Hannah) is viewed from the sidelines by two power figures: the malevolently sardonic Roy Cohn (Nathan Lane) and his more benevolent but equally sardonic night nurse, Belize (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett). Roy, dying of AIDS, wants to lure Joe into his contorted combination of reactionary politics and closeted sex. Belize, appalled by Louis’s desertion of Prior (and by Louis’s compulsively convoluted political posturing in general), wants to find some way to alleviate Prior’s agony. Cohn’s death solves both problems, freeing Joe to sort out his life his own way (though we never learn what that will be), and freeing up Cohn’s stash of AZT, acquired by string-pulling, for the use of Prior and Belize’s other suffering friends, with Louis assisting as Belize’s “pack mule.” The theft, ironically, is made easier by the permanent state of denial in which Cohn has lived: Since the official diagnosis of his disease is liver cancer, the hospital officially doesn’t know that he has been taking AZT, so its disappearance will go unnoticed.

Because Angels as a whole stretches intellectually in so many directions, its comparatively simple pair of narratives offers both multiple resonances and a certain amount of smoke-and-mirrors dazzle. The grandiose quasi-biblical language and visual flamboyance of the Angel who torments the ailing Prior — in this production a bat-winged angel, handled with elaborate, shadowy puppeteering — are so ornate it may take some while to realize that they amount to a dead-end distraction. The “great work” Prior is being commanded to do is to herald the end of humanity by dying. Having summoned the strength to wrestle the Angel (like the biblical Jacob, who also inspired Joe’s sexual self-discovery), he simply declines the task, saying, “I want more life.” A lavish metaphor for the mental choice everyone in an extreme medical condition is obliged to make, the Angel story is both the drossiest part of the play (the entire Heaven scene was omitted from the original Broadway production) and the imaginative stroke that gives it much of its cachet. A similar complaint might apply to Louis’s long, self-contradicting, political disquisitions — which carry a hint of sardonic self-caricature from this author noted for his long political disquisitions — and for such Kushnerian caprices as the prologue to Part 2, delivered by “the World’s Oldest Living Bolshevik.”

Few, I suspect, would object if much of this material were to be trimmed, which might perhaps diminish the work’s grandeur but would compensate by reinforcing the power of its intense personal scenes. It says a great deal for Kushner’s achievement that his characters and their relationships have impressed themselves on the theatergoing mind the way characters from great novels and plays did in centuries past, but had rarely done in the decades between 1960 and the advent of Angels in America. Roy Cohn, in whose flamboyantly abusive rants so many of the play’s themes are sounded, was already a historical figure to knowledgeable New Yorkers, much to their dismay. But Kushner’s work established Cohn as a larger-than-life presence for a larger public — and, at present, one with a new ominousness, given the White House’s current disreputable occupant.

The political urgency of the play’s Cohn side, along with the other issues linked to it (like climate change), may have partly stimulated what seems Elliott’s rather pressurized approach to the acting. Luckily, most of her key players have the skill and sense not to go over the top. Lane, a past master at shifting gears for comic effect, varies Cohn’s rages with softness and sham vulnerability in rich style. Pace, mixing Joe’s pent-up fury with flashes of boyish perplexity and seizures of guilt-driven stammering, is every bit as good. And Gough catches, as Marcia Gay Harden in the original didn’t quite, the yearning intelligence that lies trapped between Harper’s angry frustration and her Valium haze. The one serious misfire is Garfield’s Prior, squawky and overstated, with little emotional shading and barely a hint of the physical weakness in the character’s condition; memories of Stephen Spinella’s immaculately nuanced Prior keep crowding him off the stage. Just mentioning Spinella triggers recollections of how sturdily fine the acting in both previous productions was. Brown, Stewart-Jarrett, and McArdle all turn in solid performances, but no Hannah Pitt/Ethel Rosenberg will ever incise the lines on my heart as Kathleen Chalfant did. And Billy Porter, Off-Broadway, tossed off Belize’s stinging lines with an elegant ease that stamped his performance as definitive. McArdle, doubly unlucky where those of us with memories are concerned, has to fight off recollections of both the hapless frailty that made Joe Mantello’s Louis engaging even when mouthing off and Zachary Quinto’s somber, pained obduracy. But to mention all these artists is to confirm both the giant demands that Angels makes, and the giant artistic rewards that, for all its flaws, it can still offer now that its moment of arrival has passed into history. The great work, you might say, continues.

Angels in America
Neil Simon Theatre
250 West 52nd Street
877-250-2929
angelsbroadway.com
Through June 30

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