The standard take on Perestroika, the second part of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, is that it is not of equal quality to the masterful first. Perhaps this is why there’s a slight sense of trying too hard in this Round House Theatre-Olney Theatre Center production, where director Ryan Rilette occasionally overuses back-wall projections and other touches that get in the way of the plot. These are minor faults, however, and the cast and crew give just as much of their hearts this go-round as in Millennium Approaches.
Perestroika is certainly a thornier and messier piece of work than its predecessor, verging on sophistic in its heavily interwoven arguments. As the story continues, Prior (Tom Story) has increasingly upsetting prophetic encounters with the Angel (Dawn Ursula); his ex, Louis (Jonathan Bock), develops his relationship with recently un-closeted Mormon Joe (Thomas Keegan), who has left his wife Harper (Kimberly Gilbert) to the care of his mother Hannah (Sarah Marshall); and AIDS-stricken power lawyer Roy Cohn (Mitchell Hébert) sees his health come under the care of his ideological enemy, nurse/drag queen Belize (Jon Hudson Odom).
It is really only Prior’s story that gets lost in the weeds, dealing with questions of the absence of God and metaphysical problems with human progress. Thankfully, Story and Ursula seem to have a more solid grasp of these issues than we can get, and anyways the plot is not really about these musings of Kushner. (They’re better contemplated on the page than via his dense speeches onstage.) The plot is about the characters, and the superlative ensemble undeniably delivers on that count, often expanding and improving on their work in Part I.
Keegan, Bock, Gilbert, Hébert, and Story are all raw, honest, and specific, continuing the well-developed arcs of their characters. The others had less to do in Millennium Approaches, so let us give due praise to them: Odom masterfully lands every one of his many laugh lines without reaching for a joke; he makes us understand that while Belize is the only human character not dealing with major life changes, that does not mean he does not have a rich and turbulent inner life.
Ursula really only gets two major scenes as the Angel, but they’re doozies. She walks the fine line between being relatable and flawed and being supernatural and terrifying; it’s disturbing to realize that this creature of heaven is as confused and lost as we are about the state of the universe.
Angels in America: Perestroika
closes October 30, 2016
Details and tickets
Angels in America Part 1:
closes October 23, 2016
Details and tickets
Last but not least, there’s Marshall, essaying her role as Hannah as a quieter and less monologue-filled journey with grace, all the while creating a completely separate arc for her Ethel Rosenberg, who haunts Cohn. She is, as well, stunningly fierce and daring in the opening scene, playing the World’s Oldest Living Bolshevik. It’s a treat to see Marshall get such meaty roles – there are too few of those recently. If she and Story hit the tiniest false note of forced laughter in Prior and Hannah’s hospital scene, we can perhaps lay the blame on Kushner, who presumably felt the play already getting too long and had to rush their sudden friendship.
Similar distractions come in the scene where Harper interacts with the Mormon animatronics at the visitor center. Rilette elects to play half the scene through Clint Allen’s projections, which, while quite lovely, are crudely broken up by the crossbars of James Kronzer’s set. The decision to play the scene – and a couple other moments – almost like little films is a cruelty to Kushner’s eminently theatrical milieu.
(To hazard a guess, this particular choice may have been made because it allows Gilbert to play both Harper and the pioneer-era Mormon Mother character. Traditionally the Mormon Mother would be played by Ursula, and perhaps it was decided a black woman wouldn’t make historical sense in the role – but if that was the case, it was not worth taking the actors off of the stage.)
The play and, generally, the production – from Rilette’s overall direction to Ivania Stack’s spot-on costumes – are so nigh-perfect, it’s more of a disappointment than anything that these flaws creep in. They don’t ruin the experience by any means, but it does make one wish that Rilette and Jason Loewith (who directed the first part) had avoided the temptation to embellish the text with these projections and other small deviations.
But set these quibbles aside, as well as any concerns about the messier qualities of this half of Kushner’s tale. As I said in the first part’s review, it would be absurd to see Millennium Approaches and not Perestroika, as absurd as setting off on the journey towards change (the easy part) without completing the journey (the hard part). These characters have to wrestle with angels, and with their own demons, and the struggle of living in an often-unkind and ever-changing world, and we have to take the journey with them. There’s no more universal theme than that – and in this tumultuous 2016, none more timely, either.
Angels in America, Part II: Perestroika by Tony Kushner . Directed by Ryan Rilette . Featuring Jonathan Bock, Kimberly Gilbert, Mitchell Hébert, Thomas Keegan, Sarah Marshall, Jon Hudson Odom, Tom Story, Dawn Ursula . Scenic Designer: James Kronzer . Projection Designer: Clint Allen . Costume Designer: Ivania Stack . Assoc. Costume Designer/Crafts Artisan: Seth Gilbert . Lighting Designer: York Kennedy . Sound Designer: Joshua Horvath . Props Master: Kasey Hendricks . Dialect Coach: Zach Campion . Fight Choreographer: Casey Kaleba . Dramaturg: Gabrielle Hoyt . Assistant Director: Philip Kershaw . Flying Effects: D2 Flying Effects. Stage Managers: Marne Anderson, John Keith Hall, Che Wernsman . Produced by Round House Theatre and Olney Theatre Center . Reviewed by Brett Steven Abelman.