“How are we to proceed without Theory?” asks the world’s oldest living Bolshevik (Jennifer Mendenhall),. “Only show me…the book of the next Beautiful Theory, and I promise you that these blind eyes will see again, just to read it….”
Fair enough. There is a certain seductive joy to having a Unified Field Theory of human behavior, or something even grander – a Theory of All that Will Happen to Us, and to everyone else. We are comforted when all goes according to plan, especially when it is our plan. So what is the theory for Angels in America?
It must be a theory large enough to encompass the suffering of Prior Walter (Karl Miller), deep in the clutches of Kaposi’s sarcoma as a consequence of AIDS and abandoned by his lover, Louis Ironson (Alexander Strain); the suffering of Harper Pitt (Casie Platt), a delusional waif made madder when she discovers that the only man she ever loved, her husband Joe (Daniel Eichner), is in fact gay; the suffering of Joe, who finds himself, against his firm Mormon beliefs and even his will, to be incandescently in love with Louis; and even the suffering of Joe’s mentor, the great beast Roy Cohn (Jim Jorgensen) who, during the last moments of his AIDS-ravaged life, undertakes a furious race toward a Faustian bargain: to die before he is disbarred. Finally, it must be a theory so momentous that it can be brought to the planet only by an angel (Nanna Ingvarsson) and spread only by a prophet – in this case, by Prior Walter. For it is to these fierce and tragic events which Angels in America, Part I – Millennium Approaches has brought us, and which Part II – Perestroika must resolve.
Well. If Perestroika, or Forum Theatre’s faithful and honest production of it, does not give full satisfaction it is only by the impossibly high standard that Forum’s production of Millennium Approaches establishes. To say, as I will here, that Karl Miller is astonishing as the AIDS-ravaged hero is not to diminish the outstanding work of the rest of the fine cast. Miller plays Prior less flamboyantly than he did in Millennium Approaches, which allows us to focus more easily on the moral seriousness of the character’s task. Similarly, Alexander Strain’s portrayal of Prior’s faithless lover is less jittery than it was in Part I, as Louis begins to examine what is truly in his heart, instead of living in the dialectic churned out by whatever his current theory is. Ingvarsson and Jennifer Mendenhall, who crowns her personal one-actor repertory company by portraying the mother of an impossibly conflicted gay Republican Mormon, insert themselves into Perestroika plausibly and powerfully. Ingvarsson, in particular, manages to make the angel credible, which is crucial to having the play make sense.
There are other grace notes as well. Ro Boddie, as the acid-tongued AIDS nurse Belize, makes as strong a professional debut as I have ever seen in Washington. (Boddie also does a brief turn as an hallucinated travel agent). Casie Platt successfully completes a long character arc which started in Millennium Approaches, beginning as a woman deep in psychosis and ending, here, as someone free of her hallucinations, including the hallucination that her husband is a heterosexual. In fact, in Perestroika as in Millennium Approaches, there are no bad, or even average, performances.
On the other hand, Tony Kushner’s somewhat fanciful explanation for the world’s pain – that God abandoned the universe on the day of the San Francisco earthquake (April 18, 1906) and has not returned since – is emotionally satisfying but does not withstand close scrutiny. The horrid last century was not much worse, as it turns out, than the horrid previous centuries. After all, Jesus Christ Himself called out “My God, my God, why have You forsaken Me?” (Matt. 27:46). It is a natural impulse to believe that our misery is the worst in history, but the record does not bear it out.
If the Grand Kushnerian Theory rings a little false, though, there is a countervailing anti-theory – a theory that all theory is hogwash – which runs most effectively through the whole of Perestroika. It is no coincidence that the two most rigid ideologues – Louis Ironson and Roy Cohn – are the ones who come closest to damnation. Cohn brags that he made illegal secret arguments with the Judge in favor of the death penalty in the treason trial of Ethel Rosenberg because he “hates traitors,” ignoring his own betrayal of millions of fellow gay men by failing to acknowledge his sexual orientation. He opens Perestroika in the hospital, an adder in pajamas slithering to his doom. As for Louis, having in Part I abandoned his longstanding love for Prior because he is squeamish about Prior’s illness, abandons his new and passionate love for Joe Pitt in Part II because he is squeamish about Joe’s politics. (Joe, as a Judicial Clerk, wrote a decision for his Judge in favor of a gay man who was wrongfully dismissed from the Army, but the decision relied on a line of reasoning insufficiently ideological for Louis).
But there are heroes in Perestroika as well – unlikely heroes, who make their goodness real by breaking down theory in the cause of love. Joe’s mother (Mendenhall), a hard woman who is quick to judge and slow to forgive, gives vital help to Prior in his hour of need. When Prior concludes that as a Mormon she must have contempt for him, she snarls “don’t make assumptions about me, mister, I won’t make them about you,” and thereby seals a bargain which protects both of them against the unholy events which follow. Rosenberg (Mendenhall), back from the dead to gloat over Cohn’s final moments, nonetheless says the Kaddish over his body because it once held a human being, albeit one who was, as she says at the end of the prayer, a “son of a bitch.” Belize, who, because the matter is personal to him, has come to learn more about the virus than the doctors who treat it, gives good advice to Cohn at the risk of his job and in spite of Cohn’s hatefulness because he recognizes, in Cohn, a fellow gay man who is suffering from a monstrous illness.
The greatest hero of all, of course, is Prior Walter, who has the audacity to refuse a mission from heaven. The angels, who are creatures of great power but no imagination, have concluded that the only way to return God to His throne is if humans abandon their quest for advancement. “Seek not to fathom the world and its delicate particle logic,” the Angel implores. “Hobble yourselves!” Prior politely declines. If God returns, the angels should “sue the Bastard,” is Prior’s homespun if not entirely useful advice. (What court would have jurisdiction?) With these commonplace words, though, Prior brings about the continuation of history, and the continued progress of the human race, which proceeds, as Harper observes in a lucid moment, from pain.
It may be churlish, in the face of such a good production, to make complaint but I will do so anyway. Perestroika had a certain biliousness to it that Millennium Approaches did not. This may be due more to the play than the production but I could not tell for sure. The Cohn of Perestroika is both deathly ill and aflame with anger. Jorgensen and Director Michael Dove give more play to the illness, which makes those scenes seem longer. The Angel enters Prior Walter’s bedchamber, and subsequently circles his bed, on a wheeled platform pushed by Jorgensen. Although Jorgenson does his actorly best to look inconspicuous, it is hard not to notice that this very large and conspicuous device is being wheeled around by a man who, in the previous scene, had been rolling his head uncontrollably while attached to a morphine drip.
So what is the theory of Angels in America? There is none. There is a poem, though, which expresses its marrow – the climax of the eighth verse of “September 1, 1939.”
“Hunger allows no choice,” Auden wrote, “to the citizen or the police/We must love one another or die.”
Angels in America – Part II, Perestroika
By Tony Kushner
Directed by Michael Dove
Produced by Forum Theatre
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
ANGELS IN AMERICA – Part I – Millennium Approaches
- Brad Hathaway . Potomac Stages
- Lisa Traiger . Washington Jewish Week
- Faiga Levine . Just Theatre
- Trey Graham . City Paper
Brad Hathaway . Potomac Stages
- Peter Marks . The Post
Jayne Blanchard . The Times
ANGELS IN AMERICA – PART II: PERESTROIKA