Angels in America - A Gay Fantasia on National Themes is, as the subtitle suggests, not a play per se. It is an event. It is a summoning. Tony Kushner has bid us gather and enter into this tale as if it were a passion play. We are called to bear witness. We are called to be the honor guard and walk with this band of actors as they hurtle through time and space, existing in this dimension but visiting a few others as well. We are put on notice that this tale needs us every bit as much as we need it. Like the song from the movie Hans Christian Anderson said about a book "You realize as you're reading it that it's also reading you."
The tale begins with Rabbi Isidor Chemelwitz (Susan Brown - Note that every actor plays more than one part and Kushner is specific about assigning roles). The rabbi cautions us not to forget the ancestors on whose shoulders we stand. We will never know their sacrifice, and at the same time we must not forget - that is our responsibility. On the same day in another location, all of this philosophy is being sent to hell in a hand basket. First there is Roy M. Cohn (Nathan Lane) who is a weasel of the first order (and mentor to Donald Trump let us not forget). Cohn is doing his best to seduce his protegé Joseph Pitt (Lee Pace) to do the right thing and go to Washington to join the Justice Department. He will be Cohn's inside man, but we don't find that out till well down the road. Joe, however, is married to Harper (Denise Gough) whose grip on reality is tenuous, and his first obligation is to her - well, for the moment anyway. On the other side of the proverbial tracks we discover Louis Ironson (James McArdle) and his lover (we didn't call them partners back in 1985) Prior Walter (Andrew Garfield). Prior comes from a long line of Priors all the way back to the Middle Ages, but this pedigree is of little use to him because he has lesions on his body indicating Kaposi's sarcoma. Old Prior is one of the early cases of AIDS. These five people are the nucleus of the story. The glue, however, is Belize (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett), a nurse who is in the know about what is going down with AIDS. He is also a devoted friend to Prior and to a lesser extent Louis. Belize will not only dispense advice, he will not hesitate to Robin Hood medication from where it is not needed to where it is.
As the plot lines twist and turn around each other we watch the mighty fall, those in denial get left behind, and the pioneers become prophets. While watching the intense gay themes (here the word used is "homosexual" and its utterance nearly makes the speakers choke) it is almost too easy to forget that this play is set in 1985. Half the audience in attendance was not born. Although it was produced in two parts several years after its time setting: Angels in America: Millennium Approaches in 1991 and Angels in America: Perestroika in 1992 - it would still have been revelatory to put not only gay love but AIDS in its ugly detail on a stage. Those of us old enough to remember know the look of lesions and the caution to never exchange bodily fluids. Wash hands after shaking hands and forget about kissing a friend hello on the lips. We remember.
But Kushner does not stick to one path. Oh no. Harper's distrust of the world becomes not so far-fetched as the tale wears on. Prior's trips in and out of delirium are exquisite journeys into all that we cannot see. The dead rise and the living perish. In addition, welcome the Mormons (before the musical) and all their beliefs about what is and is not a sin while they sit in judgement wearing their special underwear. The world is in turmoil (ring a bell?) and there is no shortage of philosophizing as Reagan places his stamp on current events. Between Cohn and Louis philosophy from opposite sides of the fence is flung like so many cow pies just to see how far they will go. The writing is masterful and Lane and McArdle are more than up to the task.
And, of course, there is that Angel (Amanda Lawrence). According to Louis, there are no gods here, no ghosts and spirits in America, there are no angels in America, no spiritual past, no racial past, there’s only the political... There is, however, most definitely an Angel of some majesty in Prior's world. And this Angel does not go gentle into that good night - this Angel rages with all the life force it can pull together.
Under Marianne Elliott's direction, Angels is a roiling, churning entity. All seven hours of it. Truth be told it could use a judicious trim and not lose a single beat. Points made are points taken and they don't need making over and over again. The set for Millennium had a sterile feel to it, which may have been intentional. The sound, however, was superb on both evenings. The actors were miked, but it was a rare moment when we realized it because of a special effect. In addition, a few of the performances were uneven on the evenings I attended. This will no doubt improve as the run continues.
All that being said, the event returns to where the Rabbi left us. We are charged with remembering. Remember these people. Considering what is going on in our present political junk pile, this is a charge we should take seriously. Very, very seriously. Like the participants in March For Our Lives, these characters refuse to go away, refuse to die quietly, refuse to be invisible. They claim their right to be here. A little over 25 years after Angels first appeared, they rise again to remind us. Remember. Take action. Claim your place.
(Photo by Brinkhoff & Mögenburg)
What the popular press says...
"Sometimes, just when you need it most, a play courses into your system like a transfusion of new blood. You feel freshly awakened to the infinite possibilities not only of theater but also of the teeming world beyond. And when you hit the streets afterward, every one of your senses is singing. Such is the effect of seeing the flat-out fabulous revival of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America... with a top-flight cast led by Andrew Garfield and Nathan Lane in career-high performances."
Ben Brantley for New York Times
"The most electrifying production you’re apt to ever see of the author’s masterwork."
Joe Dziemianowicz for New York Daily News
"This is a play that breaks and fills your heart; it inspires you as it takes your breath away."
Adam Feldman for Time Out New York
"In a superlative production like this one, directed with laser-like acuity by Marianne Elliott and imported from London's National Theatre, it's the prescience of the writing that truly astonishes — no less than the harrowing beauty, the wildly imaginative flights and the acerbic humor of the drama, or the riveting work of a magnificent ensemble."
David Rooney for Hollywood Reporter
"The National Theater production of Tony Kushner’s phenomenal 1993 epic work doesn’t feel like a historical artifact that won the Pulitzer Prize, two Tony Awards, an Olivier Award, an Emmy, and the National Medal of Arts for its author. In fact, experiencing this revival of the 25-year-old play feels more like picking up a scorching hot ember from a fire that won’t burn out. The scribe’s thoughts about religion, politics, sex, morality, mortality, civic corruption and environmental calamity – as viewed through the prism of the 1980s AIDS crisis – seem every bit as prescient as they did when all our friends were dying."
Marilyn Stasio for Variety
External links to full reviews from popular press...