theater review

Theater Review: Angels in America Punches Through the Roof Again

The Angel visits Prior Walter in Part Two, Perestroika. Photo: Brinkhoff-Moegenburg

In 1935 Gertrude Stein spoke about narrative and the passing of time in a series of talks at the University of Chicago. “Twenty-five years roll around very quickly,” she wrote, but “it is the human habit to think in centuries” and “a century begins and ends” — even while no individual, experienced moment of it seems to have a definite beginning or ending.

Twenty-five have rolled around since Tony Kushner’s Angels in America opened in New York, crashing through the ceiling of American theater just as one of its title seraphim bursts into the bedroom of the character Prior Walter. The men and women of Angels, living in New York City in the mid-’80s at the height of the AIDS crisis, are facing both a monstrous modern plague and the looming closure of the 20th century. The play is permeated with endings — and with the Steinian perception that, somehow, nothing ends, that endings are in essence unknowable.

Now, 18 years into a new millennium, Angels once again spreads its magnificent wings over Broadway. Under the piercing, balletic direction of Marianne Elliott, this brilliant rendering arrives from London’s National Theatre in a moment as detached from solidity as any in living memory — and the play couldn’t feel more vivid, more eloquently enraged, funnier or more full of life than if the ink on its script were still drying. (And it is: Though the text of Angels’ Part One, Millennium Approaches, has been relatively fixed for some time, Kushner has continued to tweak Perestroika, the stranger, more cosmologically expansive Part Two, right up to the present.) Elliott’s shadowy, shifting production — somehow both spare and spectacular — is proof that Kushner’s play is that rarest and most thrilling of creations: a piece of theater that’s immediate and immortal. With its eight actors who double to create a cast of dozens, Angels in America feels both mythic and domestic, a play of its time and of the moment of its enactment, bravely reveling in theater’s quintessential paradox — its unlimited imaginative scope and its physical limitations.

The men and women who people Kushner’s world are tugged between possibility and reality, between aspiring spirit and breaking body. They know what they are, but know not what they, or their country, may be. Well, some of them know what they are — like the poised, shady, fiercely loyal ex-drag queen, Belize, in a stellar performance by Nathan Stewart-Jarrett that becomes the cool moral center of the play. Others struggle mightily either to unearth that knowledge or to keep it buried. In this “Gay Fantasia on National Themes,” as the subtitle has it, the characters are in a constant process of coming out. Aleksii Antedilluvianovich Prelapsarianov — the “world’s oldest living Bolshevik” who begins Perestroika with a savage speech demanding the halt of progress for progress’s sake — might call them “little serpents” who have shed their skin too early, making them “prey to the forces of chaos.” The keenly insightful, less grandiloquent Elliott, in an excellent feature in The New Yorker, describes the humans of Angels as continually “stripping off their identities and redefining themselves.”

Willing or not, all Kushner’s central characters experience this excruciating shedding of skin and self. There’s Joe Pitt (the stirring, towering Lee Pace, with knitted brow and constrained baritone), a young Republican law clerk and devout Mormon who’s wrestling with his repressed homosexuality and his crumbling marriage. There’s his wife Harper (Denise Gough, capable of explosive ferocity but here mostly restrained and wry), an agoraphobic Valium addict who suffers over the hole in the ozone layer and imagines escaping to Antarctica. There’s Louis Ironson, a young Jewish word processor who works at the same courts as Joe, as selfish as he is self-flagellating. Louis, for all his cowardice, is a shockingly brave character from a writing point of view. The young Scottish actor James McArdle — who here gives Louis a stricken, wonderfully unsympathetic interpretation that never gives in to Woody Allen–ish-ness — has described how meeting Kushner cracked open his performance: “Dear God, you are Louis!” the actor thought. With his penchant for tortured logorrhea and “Big Ideas,” Louis is an unsparing avatar for Kushner, a way for the playwright to expose and examine a struggling, scary (and scared) side of himself. And the character’s self-destructive debates with Belize — where Louis sticks his guilty, ill-advised oar in on everything from racism to democracy to the “monolith” of “White Straight Male America” — still play like they’re written in electric ink. “Big Ideas are all you love. ‘America’ is what Louis loves,” the extraordinary Stewart-Jarrett’s silky, steely Belize snaps at him, “Well I hate America, Louis … It’s just big ideas, and stories, and people dying, and people like you. The white cracker who wrote the National Anthem knew what he was doing. He set the word ‘free’ to a note so high nobody can reach it.”

Louis can reason but he can’t see. He’s smart, but he isn’t brave. Early in Millennium he knowingly commits a terrible betrayal: He walks out on his AIDS-afflicted partner, the fierce, fabulous, and frightened Prior Walter.

Prior is one of at least two roles in Angels that rank with the Prince of Denmark on the list of parts actors dream of playing. The other is Roy Cohn, the fire-breathing, phone-wielding, power-broking lawyer and McCarthy handmaid who, among other terrifying achievements, helped engineer the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and served as counsel to a young Donald Trump. (Though Kushner draws much of the character from the historical record, he’s careful to note that he’s taken liberties with his Cohn, who is “a work of fiction.”) A monster to the Left and an architect of our current political epoch, Cohn died in 1986 of complications from AIDS, publicly insisting to the end that he had liver cancer. It’s this plague, as incurable and apocalyptic as its medieval predecessor, that ties him to Prior, and though the two never meet, they hold Angels’ complex net of relationships and story lines suspended between them. They are the twin poles of Kushner’s play — both victims and both, in their way, visionaries — and they require powerhouse performers. And they’ve got them here, in Andrew Garfield and Nathan Lane. They’re stars, yes, but in Elliott’s production they feel like an integral part of a glorious firmament. The ensemble of this Angels is a muscular and immensely moving one, all holding each other up like athletes trading off laps of a marathon.

Garfield has faced some backlash for comments he made while working on the role of Prior. He’ll probably face more, which is a shame, because his performance is an agile, deeply felt one. He’s referred to the role as “the privilege of my life” and he’s pouring his soul into the performance. His Prior is delightful and varied — you can’t pin him down. His studied lilt can flash into blinding rage or breathless hysterics at a moment’s notice. Under his arch wit, he’s suffering and terrified, but under his pain, he’s unbreakable. “My blood is clean, my brain is fine,” he screams defiantly at the ceiling during what he believes is a hallucination, “I can handle pressure, I am a gay man and I am used to pressure!

Prior, who shows his boyfriend Louis “the wine-dark kiss of the angel of death” on his arm near the play’s beginning, is soon alone in the hideous throes of his illness. Unable to cope with the breakdown of his lover’s body, Louis abandons Prior, leaving him to experience a series of voices and visions. “Weird name, Prior Walter,” a nurse has earlier commented when Prior is admitted to the hospital, “Like, ‘The Walter before this one.’” And that’s exactly who eventually shows up in Prior’s bedroom — two prior Priors, spectral ancestors from different points in his long lineage (“The Walters go back to the Mayflower and beyond,” huffs Louis), arriving like the ghost of Jacob Marley to presage the coming of a “messenger.”

Alongside his affecting Joe, who painfully comes into himself like a bear waking up, Pace doubles in a sharp, amusing turn as Prior 1, the present Prior’s loutish ancestor from 13th-century Yorkshire. He hulks Reaper-like in the corner, shouldering a massive scythe and quibbling with present-day Prior about where he falls in the family line. “I’m the 34th, I think … according to Mother,” Prior stammers. “She’s including the two bastards, then!” Pace growls in gruff, hilarious resentment. The magnetic Lane (about whose awesome Roy Cohn, more soon) is equally marvelous in his doubling as Prior 2, a prancing, powdered, Restoration-era English aristocrat. “We’ve been sent to declare Her fabulous incipience,” he titters, “They chose us, I suspect, because of the mortal affinities. In a family as long-descended as the Walters there are bound to be a few carried off by the plague.”

And there it is: The brilliance of Angels lies not only in its remarkably drawn characters, or its interwoven story lines, or its richness of ideas, but in Kushner’s ability to suffuse all these things with humor. Much has been said of the playwright’s incandescent rage — and rage he does — but Elliott’s dexterous ensemble is a constant reminder of how damn funny the play is. Deep funny, dark funny. The laughter often aches, but it lifts and excites us too. Take the scene between Prior and his nurse, Emily (the deft, bird-like Amanda Lawrence), who turns her back for a moment as he’s nervously explaining his “hallucinations.” When she does, the floor cracks open, a column shoots out of it like Jack’s beanstalk, and a massive tome atop the column slams open and spews forth a ten-foot tall jet of flame for perhaps five seconds. Then it collapses back into the floor and vanishes.

Because this is Broadway and there’s a budget, all this really happens, as Garfield slams himself against the wall and gapes in hysterical hyperventilation. When it’s all over, we’re gasping too — and not just because it was epic but because it was ludicrous. For all the fervent gravity of his authorial project, Kushner understands that the sublime is often tinged with the ridiculous, and vice versa. So does Elliott. In Angels, and especially this Angels, you’re allowed to laugh at God, at the plague, at Roy Cohn, at the 2018 that Roy Cohn helped beget.

How else could Kushner get away with bringing someone like him to life? “He’s, he’s like the polestar of human evil,” splutters Louis, sounding like a Twitterer describing the president. “He’s like the worst human being who ever lived!” Kushner doesn’t absolve Roy but he does give him two very seductive qualities: a brain and a wit. His first scene, after all, is that legendary tour de force, the lip-smacking performance of power for his protégé, Joe, in which he juggles five different phone conversations like a profane Pavarotti luxuriating in the top notes of “Nessun Dorma.”

“I wish I was an octopus, a fucking octopus,” Roy yammers gleefully as he hops from call to call, punching buttons. “Eight loving arms and all those suckers. Know what I mean?” (For more on Roy and the famous “octopus aria,” check out this excerpt from The World Only Spins Forward, the recently published, extra-juicy oral history of the making of Kushner’s play). Lane is absolutely in his element here — like an unholy, grinning mashup of Max Bialystock and Richard III. A master of that fast-talking, wheeling-dealing, joking-but-not-joking New York hustler thing, Lane ensures that Roy will make us laugh, which is both dangerous and delicious. Has the character’s gushing over La Cage aux Folles ever been funnier or, in a strange way, more poignant? Kushner’s play is obsessed with ancestry, and Lane’s particular theatrical pedigree brings both a knowing wink and a real sense of dimension to the role. His Roy will charm us, get under our skin, and even, as his illness weakens him, creepily close to our hearts.

It’s a technically virtuosic performance: You can follow the physical decline of Lane’s Roy scene by scene, as his hand starts to tremble and his operatic voice diminishes to a gasping growl. It’s also a horribly moving one. Lane was just starting to make his way as a young gay actor in New York at the dawn of the AIDS crisis. “I’m lucky to have survived,” he told Isaac Butler in a recent interview for this magazine, “I’m a living artifact.” Lane’s preeminence as a comic actor is unquestionable, but he also carries with him an innate understanding of the terrifying time in and of which Kushner was writing. His performance reveals the link between true comic genius and a knowledge of the dark. The character of Roy has to be nothing less than a natural disaster in human form, and Lane’s Roy is, but he’s also a devastatingly precise one, an all-too-human monster with a master comedian’s timing. “You love me; that’s moving, I’m moved. It’s nice to be loved,” he shoots at Joe in a harrowing scene of fatherly betrayal and sublimated erotic disappointment, as if he’s tossing him a water balloon full of sulfuric acid, “But you don’t listen to me, why, because you say Roy is smart and Roy’s a friend but Roy… well, he isn’t nice, and you wanna be nice. Right? A nice, nice man.” There’s nothing sloppy in Lane’s rage — even at his most murderous there’s a deadly exactness, a sniper’s aim for the heart.

Elliott, who’s become known for her ability to coordinate vast, complex productions (she’s the only woman with two directing Tonys, for War Horse and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time), knows how to embrace the scope of Kushner’s play while still keeping it about the ensemble who powers it. She and her top-notch design team are taking full advantage of the resources afforded by a huge, commercial show like this one, but they’re doing so with purpose and even restraint, to the full support of the actors. Paule Constable’s exquisite lighting renders the world of Angels in isolated patches surrounded by voids of darkness, augmented by streaks of glowing neon that conjure up something both very ‘80s and very now — something gritty and a little derelict and undeniably American. This Angels takes place at the very witching time of night, the time of fears and secrets and confessions. Especially in Millennium Approaches, the light is cold and directional — you can follow the beams from their sources to the intimate scenes they illuminate. For all its scale, Angels plays out almost entirely in duets, and Constable suspends each pair of actors in space, underlining their vulnerability in the midst of the unknown chaos that presses in on them.

Ian MacNeil’s set underlines the unnervingly familiar feeling of simultaneous isolation and suffocation in a constantly moving city of millions. In Perestroika, the scenes that we witnessed in separate, stark tableaus in Millennium start to overlap one another in space — actors remain visible in the shadows as another scene plays out in front of them, turning the stage into a living palimpsest. Sometimes, scenes even interpenetrate, as in the heartbreaking sequence in which Joe and Louis, who have both abandoned their suffering partners, return to them abased and afraid. Elliott stages the interlocking duets as if they’re occurring in the same space, struggling, connected spirits occupying separate but contiguous planes.

And then, speaking of planes and spirits, there’s the Angel. The “messenger” whose coming is foretold to Prior, who appears to him at the climax of Part One, might be envisioned as a glorious, shimmering being. She’s an Angel, after all, the “Continental Principality of America” as she calls herself, one of an immeasurably powerful race of celestial beings created by a now-absent deity. But Elliott and the ingenious puppet designers Finn Caldwell and Nick Barnes have opted for a different kind of demigod. I won’t spoil the details, but the results are electrifying. Suffice it to to say that Amanda Lawrence is a freaky, feral Angel — more Gollum than godlike — and it takes a team of six shadowy puppeteers to help engineer her “infinite descent.” She still thunders forth grand pronouncements, but she, like the country she hovers over, is much the worse for wear.

“How do people change?” asks Harper. Prior isn’t the only one who has visions. The deteriorating Roy talks with the specter of Ethel Rosenberg (the fantastic Susan Brown, who steals scenes as every character she plays, from the ancient Bolshevik to an almost-as-ancient rabbi to Joe’s cutting and difficult mother, Hannah) — and Harper brings a series of hallucinatory figures to life. Here, she’s talking to a mannequin in the Diorama Room of the Mormon Visitors’ Center in Manhattan, and of course the dummy answers back. “God splits the skin with a jagged thumbnail from throat to belly,” the plaster pioneer woman (also Amanda Lawrence) tells the lonely addict, “He grabs hold of your bloody tubes … he pulls and pulls till all your innards are yanked out … And then he stuffs them back, dirty, tangled, and torn. It’s up to you to do the stitching.”

Angels is nearing its 30th birthday, and yet it remains perhaps the most ecstatic, most devastating theatrical exploration of “the melting pot where nothing melted,” an unparalleled depiction of the modern American soul in all its striving, suffering, and chaotic contradiction. For Kushner, America is the undiscovered country, a land of beginnings, violently hurtling forward without looking back, obsessed with progress and terrified of apocalypse, writing and rewriting its narrative in words that — to steal again from Gertrude Stein — “have within themselves the consciousness of completely moving,” that have begun “to detach themselves from the solidity of anything.”

A quarter-century ago, the painful, defiant ending of Perestroika presaged the beginning of a Great Work — a social and political project no doubt but a theatrical one as well. Kushner’s play was and remains a clarion call of possibility for both citizens and theater artists. So why aren’t there more plays like Angels in America? Why do so many works of theater that aspire to engage with politics, with Big Ideas, do so without tapping into the infinite, mystical potential of their form? We have enough morality plays. As the playwright Sarah Ruhl proposes in her book 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write, the miracle of Angels is that it combines morality and mystery. Productions like Elliott’s majestic, intelligent revival show us how revelatory this play still is — how it continues to dare artists to split open the body of the theater, stick a hand in, and wrench the bloody tubes around.

Angels in America is running at the Neil Simon Theater. Millennium Approaches and Perestroika may be seen in one day with a dinner break or on separate nights.

Theater: Angels in America Punches Through the Roof Again