“The great work begins!” Prior Walter, a character with AIDS who stays defiantly alive, proclaimed at the end of Angels in America when it debuted 25 years ago on Broadway. By the time Prior says it again, now portrayed by Andrew Garfield, in the first Broadway revival of Tony Kushner’s ambitious, unruly, remarkable play, we in the audience are once again inspired, and touched and exhausted.
In the current production at the Neil Simon Theatre, which originated in London’s National Theatre, Angels in America remains compelling. It is very funny and moving and smart. It is also overwhelming and sprawling – more than seven hours, spread out over two parts, Millennium Approaches and Perestroika – and at times inaccessibly esoteric.
In an era when AIDS is no longer a death sentence and a different Kushner is often in the news, Angels in America is nevertheless in some ways surprisingly timely too. Subtitled “A Gay Fantasia on National Themes,” the play refers to such now-urgent issues as immigration, climate change, race relations, political corruption, LGBT discrimination, and, especially, to the inequity of health care. But that’s not all.
“Where is my Roy Cohn,” President Donald Trump reportedly complained last year when Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from the Russia investigation. Trump’s mentor and role model Roy Cohn, the much-hated, ethically challenged lawyer known for his scorched earth tactics, is a central character in Angels in America, portrayed by Nathan Lane. His is one of the terrific performances that bolster this production. But the production is also marred by a couple of mediocre performances. And, although it is helmed by Marianne Elliott (who is the only woman to have won the Tony Award twice for directing), the stagecraft in this Angels in America only occasionally rises to the level of Elliott’s two visually spectacular Broadway productions, War Horse and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time,
But whatever flaws exist in the play and in the production, they are like so many speed bumps in a glorious road trip driven by Tony Kushner’s rage, passion, compassion, intelligence, energy and ear – by the intensity of his talent.
“A good play, like good lasagna, should be overstuffed, “Kushner wrote in a 1995 collection of essays. “It has a pomposity, and an overreach…” Angels in America is certainly overstuffed with grand themes (e.g., freedom vs. responsibility; American individualism vs. the need for community) and a confusion of ancillary characters, from the world’s oldest Bolshevik to the council of angels that rule the continents of Earth, to the living mannequins in the diorama room in New York City’s Mormon Visitors’ Center. Yet the play is kept rooted in main characters who feel real, initially grouped in three separate stories.
In Millennium Approaches, set in 1985, a time when Americans feared the future, each of the central characters is faced with a dreaded new life-changing event. Louis Ironson (James McArdle) learns that his longtime lover Prior Walter (Garfield) has contracted AIDS; Louis eventually abandons Prior. Mormon lawyer Joe Pitt (finely portrayed by Lee Pace), who has moved from Utah with his wife Harper (Denise Gough) and clerks for a judge, can no longer repress his homosexuality and abandons Harper, who is already sad and lonely and hallucinating. Roy Cohn (Lane), notorious and closeted, learns that he has AIDS and hallucinates a visit from Ethel Rosenberg, the woman he executed (one of the four very different characters effectively portrayed by Susan Brown.)
In Perestroika – named after the policy of restructuring instituted by Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union – the characters struggle to make sense of their reordered lives, or to stay alive. The separate worlds these characters inhabited overlap and intersect, collide and merge, resulting in a series of deeply affecting one-on-one scenes between the unlikeliest of pairs. A satisfying play could be fashioned simply from the relationship between the nasty, dying Roy Cohn and the no-nonsense nurse Belize, a black ex drag queen (who also happens to be a former lover of Prior and a friend of Lou.) Nathan Stewart-Jarrett portrays Belize in an impressive Broadway debut. The interplay between the two Nathans is a highlight of the production – the one barking orders, cracking jokes, crying out in pain; the other subtly signaling his ambivalence and distaste and compassion.
Andrew Garfield, best known for his movie roles (The Social Network, Spiderman, Hacksaw Ridge), holds his own in fabulousness in the campy “girl-talk” scenes between Prior and Belize, just as he is persuasively terrified in his scenes with the angels (which may or not be his fevered hallucinations) and desperate and furious in his scenes with Lou.
Unfortunately, in his portrayal of the loquacious/logorrheic New York Jewish intellectual Louis Ironson, the Scottish actor James McArdle too often slips into what feels like a poor impersonation of Woody Allen, minus the humor. It is a bit flabbergasting that the director thought McArdle’s inauthentic depiction would be persuasive to a Broadway audience full of actual New York Jewish intellectuals. If the playwright is harsh to his obvious stand-in, previous Lous (Joe Mantello in the original Broadway production, Zachary Quinto at the Signature in 2010, Ben Shenkman in the HBO series) made the character attractive enough to counterbalance his obnoxiousness. It’s hard to see how McArdle’s mannered Lou could appeal to the handsome Prior Walter and the All-American Joe Pitt.
Although less annoying, and less consequential for the production, Denise Gough barely registers as Harper Pitt, which is a baffling disappointment for those of us who saw her remarkable performance as an alcoholic drug addict in People, Places & Things. When the Irish actress is onstage in Angels in America, you are less likely to wonder “is Harper crazy or just neglected?” than “Is that really what an American from Utah sounds like?”
Some of the design choices are also off-putting. Adrian Sutton’s music between the scenes, and especially underscoring them, too often feels unnecessary or out of place. Nicky Gillibrand’s costume for the main angel (portrayed by Amanda Lawrence or Beth Malone) is threadbare and grimy, as if she’s been sleeping in a subway tunnel. Ian MacNeil’s initial set design is deliberately dark and ugly, each scene taking place in a little cubicle lined and lit with fluorescent tubes and placed on one of three turntables. Eventually, though, those dark little cubicles disappear and we get some of the stage magic for which the director is known (aided by illusionist Chris Fisher.) Even the angel’s costume, supported by a half dozen puppeteers, grows on you; it starts feeling like a part of the director’s vision.
This is the fifth production of Angels in America that I’ve seen, if I count the 2003 star-studded series on HBO, including the original Broadway production at the Walter Kerr; the pared-down Signature Theater production in 2010, with a cast that included Christian Borle, Zachary Quinto, Billy Porter and Bill Heck; and the 2014 radically reimagined production by Ivo van Hove at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. The BAM production was most memorable to me for the confrontational scene between Louis and Belize over black Anti-Semitism and Jewish racism, because it cast two Dutch actors, speaking in Dutch, as the black New York character and the Jewish New York character, with little if any discernible trace of anything Jewish or black or New York about either of them. Still, I’ve loved all of these versions, finding something new in the play each time. The 25th anniversary revival on Broadway may not be a hugely more significant production, as all the attention could make you believe. But this Angels in America is just as spectacular — and just as can’t-miss.
Angels in America is onstage at the Neil Simon Theater (250 West 52nd Street, between Broadway and Eighth Avenue, New York, NY 10019) through July 1, 2018.
Tickets and details.
Angels in America by Tony Kushner, directed by Marianne Elliott, scenic design by Ian MacNeil; costume design by Nicky Gillibrand; lighting design by Paule Constable; illusions by Chris Fisher; sound design by Ian Dickinson and Autograph; puppet design by Finn Caldwell and Nick Barnes; hair and wig Design by Rick Caroto; Makeup Design by Rick Caroto; featuring Andrew Garfield, Nathan Lane, Susan Brown, Denise Gough, Amanda Lawrence, James McArdle, Lee Pace, Nathan Stewart-Jarrett, Beth Malone, Patrick Andrews, Glynis Bell, Amy Blackman, Curt James, Rowan Ian Seamus Magee, Mark Nelson, Matty Oaks, Genesis Oliver, Jane Pfitsch, Lee Aaron Rosen, Ron Todorowski, Silvia Vrskova, and Lucy York. Reviewed by Jonathan Mandell.