“The world only spins forward,” says Prior Walter, ravaged with AIDS but still enduring, in the culminating speech of “Angels in America,” Tony Kushner’s majestic drama about our country and culture in the 1980s. The sentiment might seem questionable today. History is not an arrow speeding inexorably toward progress, but a series of cycles, and our current turbulent times may have you wondering whether the moral arc of the universe is currently bending in the right direction. Even the title of the play’s second part, “Perestroika,” now seems quaintly anachronistic. The long bleak coda that followed the unraveling of the Soviet Union continues to unfold, spreading its toxins beyond Russia’s borders and maybe even into American ballot boxes.
Nevertheless, while history makes unfortunate U-turns now and then, artistic achievement remains ageless, its power impervious to the storms that batter and bruise the world. And so the return to Broadway of Kushner’s landmark play provides at least a small measure of comfort in an unsettling era. Its vision of a pervading darkness haltingly giving way to light, of human loneliness resolving itself into either communal comfort or acceptance, remains as moving today as it did when the play first exploded into the national consciousness in the early 1990s.
The new production, first seen at the National Theatre in London, arrives in New York with virtually all of its cast intact, with only the superb Lee Pace replacing Russell Tovey in the role of Joe Pitt. The director, the two-time Tony winner Marianne Elliott (“War Horse,” “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time”), has assembled a first-rate ensemble, led by Nathan Lane as Roy Cohn and Andrew Garfield as Prior.
These two characters embody the life force in ways that are diametrically opposed. For Cohn, life is a zero-sum game in which winners and losers are neatly ranked. (Sound like anyone we know? The historical link between Cohn and our current president tacitly, and eerily, underscores the play’s continued relevance.) Cohn’s ferocious drive to remain among the winners gnaws at his soul even more ferociously than AIDS ravages his body. In his view it’s only losers, the powerless, who deserve to die.
Lane is of course best known as the pre-eminent comic stage actor of his generation, and in Cohn’s opening scene, as he tangles with the telephone, barking and wheedling and berating, he is predictably hilarious, flinging each zinger across the footlights as if tossing candy to children. (This is my fourth time seeing a staged “Angels,” and I always forget how consistently and spectacularly funny it is.) But any fears that Lane might shy away from or smooth over the character’s molten core of viciousness are soon dispelled.
In the scene in which Cohn taunts and threatens his doctor, daring him to name Cohn a homosexual, while threatening to end the doctor’s career if he does, Lane’s venom burns at a scalding fever pitch.
So often cast in audience-coddling roles, Lane manages to channel his expertise as an entertainer to make Cohn’s monstrousness as repellent as it is captivating. The old cliché about loving to hate a character has never rung more true.
Prior Walter represents man’s ineradicable urge to survive with an equal tenaciousness, but in a vastly different manner. Cohn would consider him contemptible: an openly gay man (loser!) racked with AIDS (sad!) in the early scenes, then abandoned by his neurotic Jewish lover, Louis Ironson (James McArdle). But while a play this complex cannot be said to have a single moral center — morality, in Kushner’s view, ranges across a wide spectrum even in single individuals — Prior is the focus of our instinctive sympathy, and his indomitable humanity, even in extremis, is a beacon that spreads light.
In the early scenes Garfield seems to be enacting Prior’s casual effeminacy rather than inhabiting it. (And, all these years later, Prior’s brief drag scene, with its rather tired Norma Desmond reference, is among the few moments that strikes me as dated and unnecessary.) But as Prior struggles with his illness, vacillates between rage and despair at Louis’s betrayal, and later begins communing with angels who have chosen him to act as a prophet, Garfield infuses the role with an impressive range of feeling: gallows humor, strength, bewildered wonder, innate compassion. Like Cohn — like all of us — Garfield’s Prior is hungry for “more life,” and he is willing to wrestle with an angel (literally) in order to secure it, because in the play’s cosmology, life is the supreme value. (And, curiously and movingly, in conceiving Prior’s arc Kushner was himself prophetic: Prior’s survival, against the odds, foreshadowed the advances in AIDS medication that would soon restore better health to the thousands of men and women who were able to get access to them.)
Of course, as “Angels” regularly reminds us, the responsibility that life should bestow upon us — which is to use it for good — is often squandered, even by those who mean well. Louis most potently illustrates how even people of intelligence and upright morality can sow destruction, and McArdle’s brash, fervent and funny performance doesn’t stint on letting all of Louis’s demons hang out. Louis’s love for Prior is not stronger than his fear of disease and death — and responsibility. Made as he is, of mottled moral clay, and despite all his righteous political talk, he can only act as he does. Here again Kushner’s wisdom about human behavior both saddens and consoles, for there’s a little of Louis in all of us. We want to do good, but sometimes it’s more comfortable to do what we want, wrong or not, and then feel guilty about it.
Louis, of course, takes self-flagellation to an extreme when he falls for Joe Pitt, who represents much that he despises: He’s a closeted gay man, a believing Mormon, and (clutch pearls) a Republican legal clerk. For Louis their affair is as much penitential as it is pleasurable. With his wholesome All-American good looks, radiating a sense of fundamental decency, Pace is perfectly cast as Joe, the lone character who is ultimately left without any real redemption. But that’s not because Kushner withholds sympathy from him: It is impossible not to ache with Joe during the scene when he calls his mother in Utah to tell her he’s gay; her quick dismissal of him only fuels his sense of solitude and anguish at his betrayal of his wife, Harper (Denise Gough).
Harper is probably the least rewarding of the play’s major roles, as she does little more than pop pills and embark on a fantastical journey to Antarctica. A seasoning of vulnerability might have added some emotional heft to her scenes, but instead, Gough brings a febrile sense of addled desperation to her performance that keeps Harper from receding to the fringes.
In fact there is not a weak or underpowered performance in the production. As Joe’s mother Hannah, journeys to New York to sort out her son’s life, Susan Brown is fiercely and funnily stoic, as Hannah meets each unthinkable development with stolid acceptance. She is also terrific as a softly gloating Ethel Rosenberg, whose ghost comes to watch as her nemesis, Cohn, is swallowed up by a brutal death. And as Belize, the black gay nurse (and friend to Prior and Louis) who finds himself in the appalling position of having to take care of a man, Cohn, whom he despises, Nathan Stewart-Jarrett is deliciously droll, his Belize giving as good as he gets when Cohn vulgarly and repeatedly taunts him, and rebuking Louis’s exhaustive justification for leaving Prior with a quiet but eloquent contempt.
Visually, Elliott’s is not a remarkable or ambitious production. Bland, interchangeable-looking set pieces, trimmed in neon tubing, represent most of the many locations. And the Angel, played by Amanda Lawrence with a sinuous slinkiness, makes an unspectacular appearance: not crashing through Prior’s ceiling in a manner he memorably describes as “very Steven Spielberg,” but stealing onstage with her wings manipulated, bunraku-style, by dark-clad actors. What is rather too Spielbergian, on the other hand, is the music by Adrian Sutton, bombastic and overbearing, as if to announce what we already know: This is a play of epic proportions! If ever a playwright’s words can be trusted to speak for themselves, it’s Kushner’s in “Angels.”
In terms of sheer volume, Kushner’s words make a sound more mighty than a Wagnerian orchestra. “Perestroika” has over the years been knocked for its wordiness and diffuseness, and it remains the less satisfying half of the play. I’ll confess that even after four viewings, the motives and meanings of the interactions among the angels remain murky, and frankly boring, to me. And there are times when Kushner’s unique gift for lyricism electrified by a rigorous intelligence seems to be spread so liberally among the characters that we hear the playwright’s voice coming at us through different megaphones.
But one’s in-the-moment quibbles tend to feel like feeble footnotes in the aftermath of the experience of the play. Although at least one of its strands is a protest against the now-distant repressive Reagan era, “Angels in America” still pulses with fervent life and currency today. Indeed you could argue that, as political and social polarization have grown only more pronounced in the years since it was written, its fundamental message has taken on a greater urgency. For the play is most striking in its depiction of characters of wildly, even absurdly, diverse lives and beliefs forging connections.
Hannah, for whom homosexuality is almost inconceivable, will come to comfort Prior when he is in direst need. The near-Marxist Louis will unwittingly coax the staunch conservative Joe into accepting himself. And, in what remains perhaps the most harrowingly beautiful scene, Belize will insist that Louis perform the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead, over the body of Roy Cohn, who embodied the forces that are most destructive to their humanity.
Do such extravagantly unlikely emotional connections seem impossible in America today? Possibly. Probably? But art of on the level of “Angels in America” has the power to both rebuke and inspire. Many seeing the play for the first time may feel the world is in desperate need of both. More life? Amen. But more art, too, please.
“Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes” opened at the Neil Simon Theatre on Sun., March 25, 2018.
Creative: Written by Tony Kushner; Music by Adrian Sutton; Directed by Marianne Elliott;Scenic Design by Ian MacNeil; Costume Design by Nicky Gillibrand; Lighting Design by Paule Constable; Sound Design by Ian Dickinson and Autograph; Puppet Design by Finn Caldwell and Nick Barnes.
Producers: Tim Levy, NT America, Jordan Roth, Rufus Norris & Lisa Burger, The Royal National Theatre, Elliott & Harper Productions, Kash Bennett, NT Productions, Aged In Wood, The Baruch-Viertel-Routh-Frankel Group, Jane Bergère, Adam Blanshay Productions, CatWenJam Productions, Jean Doumanian, Gilad-Rogowsky, Gold-Ross Productions, The John Gore Organization, Grove Entertainment, Harris Rubin Productions, HornosMoellenberg, Brian & Dayna Lee, Benjamin Lowy, Stephanie P. McClelland, David Mirvish, Mark Pigott KBE, KStJ, Jon B. Platt, E. Price-LD ENT., Daryl Roth, Catherine Schreiber, Barbara Whitman, Jujamcyn Theaters, The Nederlander Organization and The Shubert Organization.
Cast: Andrew Garfield, Nathan Lane, Susan Brown, Denise Gough, Amanda Lawrence, Beth Malone, James McArdle, Lee Pace, Nathan Stewart-Jarrett, Rowan Ian Seamus Magee, Matty Oaks, Jane Pfitsch, Ron Todorowski, Silvia Vrskova, Lucy York.