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stage dive

Theater Review: The Spectacularly Overstuffed Angels in America

Christian Borle and Robin Bartlett in Angels in America.

All rooms are one room in the lusty, lumpy, lovably imperfect remount of Angels in America, Tony Kushner’s joyous battle hymn against the Reagan eighties and the End of History-conservatism that fueled it. And that one room — a prolapsed but unified artistic consciousness, not a series of echo chambers, not a mausoleum of philosophical niches — is very, very cluttered. It’s a room crammed with globes and maps, where fat slabs of city space fall crazily against each other, like Britannica volumes toppled from a bookshelf by an earthquake. It’s a place where chunks of reality go Inception-ing to and fro as the playwright’s mind tilts a marble through a maze. This room is large, for being so small: It contains multitudes, though, to its credit, it doesn’t seat them comfortably.

Director Michael Greif has built, on the Signature’s stage, a vastly horizontal, low-ceilinged Angels, its stark materialist architecture decked with fabulous Whitmanesque bunting. He’s assembled a fantastically mismatched array of actors and acting styles, colliding like charged particles: Sometimes they ignite, sometimes they nullify each other, but the aggregate effect is suitably epic. In seven hours, Angels can change your world. (I’d strongly recommend spreading the experience over two nights.)

Kushner designed Angels that way, and continues to design it: "Millennium Approaches," the saga’s first chapter, is functionally unchanged, but "Perestroika" exhibits various alterations. It’s as if the whole idea of canonization is anathema to Kushner’s restless mind. (And why not? He’s no originalist. Scripture ought to breathe.) We’ve been reading Kushner’s masterwork for two decades now, analyzing it in college seminars, breaking down its influences, parsing the Brecht, Nietzsche, Hegel, and Freud found within. Greif reminds us that Kushner’s also an entertainer. (He came of age at the dawn of Gen-X culture melding, when Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman were transforming comic books into Blakean social prophecies and Joss Whedon was shaping Buffy the Vampire Slayer — and these pop monsterpieces have as much to do with Angels as that bookshelf full of dead Teutons does.) Ecstasy is his metier, and his story, even setting aside the theatrical mechanics and Miltonic poetry, is a grabby web of romantic (and, ultimately, cosmic) intrigue worthy of a great nighttime soap.

It’s 1985, and Prior Walter (Christian Borle) is a gay Wasp with AIDS, Louis Ironson (Zachary Quinto, of Heroes and Star Trek) his lefty-righteous Jewish boyfriend. His lover’s illness awakens the dormant commitment-phobia in Louis, who flies into the arms of a closeted Mormon, Joe (The Orphans Home Cycle’s Bill Heck). Joe’s a hungry young Republican lawyer who just happens to be apprenticed to real-life closet case Roy Cohn (the fearsome, fantastic Frank Wood), the arch-conservative and McCarthyite zealot who had helped put Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in the electric chair back in ’52. Roy’s dying of AIDS as the play opens, his double life finally catching up with him. Joe, he hopes, is his legacy; his final illusion, and perhaps his only sentimental one, is that he has a blessing to bestow. (He does, in fact. But it comes in the form of the AZT he’s hoarded — only to have it pirated by Prior’s friend Belize, played by Billy Porter.) Meanwhile, Joe’s mad housewife, Harper (Zoe Kazan), is touring the ionosphere, courtesy of Valium Airlines. When her visions start dovetailing with Prior’s fever dreams, it’s clear that we’ve broken free of the literal.

Pretty soon, Prior’s hearing voices, seeing flaming Hebrew letters, and feeling a certain prophetic twinge in his loins. By the time the Angel of America (Robin Weigert) reveals herself, in all of her glory and confusion, history (just as Kushner promises) has already begun to “crack wide open.” “The stiffening of your penis is of no consequence!” the Angel intones, but Prior (and the rest of us) knows otherwise. Boners and prophecies are all one here, and performed poetry is the phlogiston that keeps it all unified, animate, and erect: “NOT PHYSICS,” says the Angel, “BUT ECSTATICS MAKES THE ENGINE RUN.” For Kushner, dialectic is a supercollider: He brazenly, brilliantly fuses the fleshly with the divine, the material with the mystic, often outpacing even his own fleet-footed intellect — which is saying something.

He also, it must be said, outpaces his actors from time to time, and Greif can’t quite keep everyone in line. Zoe Kazan is an interesting but ultimately incorrect choice for Harper; she simply reads as an elfin child bride, full of empty-eyed chants but too spritely and too green to convince us that she's a woman who’s experienced real pain. As Louis, Quinto comes alive when he has someone to seduce or cajole. His heavy, handsome features suggest appetite, and he’s at his best when there’s a meal in front of him. In the early, expository goings of "Millennium," Kushner’s words seem to defeat him: He retreats into meter, pattern, sound. But once he crosses paths with Heck’s Joe, he starts to pop. Less electrifying is his chemistry with Borle’s Prior, who’s played at a level of clanging, queeny brass that’s suits the character’s cross-dressing past and gooses the show’s energy considerably, but occasionally skirts the outer rings of caricature.

Blowing right past caricature into the Great Beyond is Frank Wood’s Roy, a towering, terrifying creation that is purely theatrical and entirely honest, all at once. Wood seems to unhinge his jaw before he speaks, as if he’s getting ready to swallow someone whole. Very often, that’s just what he does. Cohn is one of Kushner’s greatest creations, a magnetic Satan utterly comfortable with his own self-loathing, a master externalizer of self-hate. Wood makes him equal parts Sid Caesar and Iago, and somehow, this works. In a quieter but no less monumental performance (or, more accurate, performances), Robin Bartlett plays multiple roles, including Hannah, Joe’s flinty, pragmatic Mormon mother. Her Hannah is tethered and un-indulgent, an excellent pairing with Borle’s Prior. (Their "Perestroika" scenes are excellent.) But it’s her drag roles that never fail to impress. Gender blindness onstage was, no doubt, a lot more provocative in 1992; today, it feels a bit more gestural and formal. Yet Bartlett plumbs great depths and evinces unforced gravitas in her various cameos, most notably Alexei Antediluvianovich Prelapsarianov, the World’s Oldest Bolshevik, who delivers the malediction that opens "Perestroika."

Angels, by its end, has ended several times. Kushner is making a case for optimism, for flux, for the continuing possibility of justice and joy in an exhausted, exhausting world that’s so terribly old, yet so awfully immature at the same time. He just can’t bear to end the poem, and it's both a boon and a profound source of exasperation: By the end, we’re in heaven — a sort of heaven, at least — and celestial bureaucrats are sitting around, listening to the BBC "World Service." Greif has staged many of these more fantastical scenes for maximum drabness, possibly acting on the Brechtian dictates of Kushner’s notes: He’s trying to collapse the mystic and material, after all, and explore the imagination space where all beliefs and dreams (God, capitalism, communism) abut the cold physical realm. By the end of this pan-continental journey, we’re already checking out, savoring the early evening sweets to which we’ve already been treated. Perhaps we begin to realize we’ve spent an evening visiting a hoarder, sifting through marvelous stacks and sheafs of wonders, some more wondrous than others, perhaps, but all of them thoroughly fascinating. And we submit. It’s probably a mistake to tell a guy that smart, that creative, to clean up his room, especially when it’s such a glorious mess he’s made.

Photo: Joan Marcus