Let me be unequivocal. The Signature Theatre Company’s production of Tony Kushner’s masterwork Angels in America is astounding.
“Astounding” is not a term I use loosely or often, so let me provide some context.
Let me begin by saying that I am unencumbered by memories of the legendary original Broadway production from 1993. I did not see it and had to settle for reading the published script and then, later, watching the HBO film version. Neither of these experiences prepared me the play’s sheer theatricality.
I do not have a clue as to how Kushner pulled off such an astonishing juggling act, brilliantly weaving together so many complex ideas: the AIDS crisis, sexual identity, gender roles, the nature of God, U. S. history in the second half of the twentieth century, legal ethics, Judaism, Mormonism, race relations, the healthcare industry, medical ethics, damage to the ozone layer, prescription drug abuse, mental instability, co-dependent behaviors, marriage, loyalty, friendship, and others I am sure I am leaving out. Somehow, all of these come together within a rich tapestry of reality and fantasy, punctured clichés, surprising turns, unexpected humor, and deep, raw, and keenly felt emotions.
This is especially true in Part I of the two-part play, Millennium Approaches. In it, Kushner manages to pull everything into breathtakingly perfect balance and offers a most extraordinary yin and yang of intellectual content and human heart, comparable, in my view, only to Tom Stoppard’s brilliant Arcadia, which debuted in London, interestingly enough, the same year as Angels in America made it to Broadway.
Given the play’s many intertwined themes, it would be difficult to parse the plot. Angels in America takes place mostly in New York City in 1986-1987. The central characters are Prior Walter, a thirty-year-old gay New Yorker who has just learned he has full-blown AIDS; Roy Cohn, the real-life right-wing attorney best known as Red-baiting Senator Joseph McCarthy’s chief counsel, who also has gotten AIDS through sexual contact with men but who adamantly eschews the “homosexual” label; and Harper Pitt, whose mental stability is collapsing along with her marriage to a closeted gay Mormon.
Now would probably be a good time to declare that Christian Borle as Prior Walter, Frank Wood as Roy Cohn, and Zachary Quinto as Prior’s conflicted boyfriend Louis give three truly indelible performances. This is a play that portrays ragged emotions at their most heightened and unvarnished, and one can only imagine the great sense of trust that had to have developed among the actors, and between the actors and director Michael Greif. There is not a false note to be found.
Zoe Kazan seems to me to have been miscast as Harper—looking too young and sounding more like a ditzy California blonde than a Salt Lake City Mormon---but she and all of the rest of the cast perform with all the love and attention and mutual respect anyone could ever hope to see on stage. The rest of this wonderful company is made up of Robin Bartlett, whom I loved as Harper’s mother-in-law Hannah and as the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, who has come for a deathwatch over her prosecutor, Roy Cohn; Bill Heck as Harper’s lost soul of a husband, trying and failing to keep himself and Harper on what he believes to be the “straight” and narrow path; Billy Porter as Belize, gay friend to both Prior and Louis and a nurse working with AIDS patients; and Robin Weigert as The Angel.
Without the budget of a major Broadway production, the Signature Theatre Company has done some wonderful work through the use of movable sets, projections, and black-clad stagehands. It is only in Part II of Angels in America, Perestroika, that things get a little muddy, especially with the introduction of a new plot element about heaven and the struggle of the angels to keep things together after God has taken off for parts unknown. For me, this is where the juggling fails to keep all of the balls in the air, and the connections are unclear. Still, Part II has some of the play’s most transcendent scenes, focusing as it does on love, forgiveness, and acceptance. Robin Bartlett shines in several of these scenes, and I wish we could have had more of her and fewer angels in Perestroika.
Still, Tony Kushner and all involved with the Signature Theatre Company have given us a wonderful gift with this production of Angels in America.
Did I mention that it is astounding?
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