Angels in America, that winged masterwork of Tony Kushner and the 20th Century, is back on Broadway in a revival weighed with expectations as heavy as the angel Bethesda in Central Park. With marquee-name stars – Andrew Garfield, Nathan Lane, Lee Pace – and the halo of approval from London audiences, the two-part, 7-hour-plus, gloriously subtitled “Gay Fantasia On National Themes” remains as rich a theatrical experience as when Kushner won the Pulitzer back in ’93 and his eccentric, visionary fever dream first blessed the stage (and too many dying men to count) with “more life.”
It wasn’t a given, you know, this return that’s triumphant if not perfect. As we’re told by the play’s heroic, AIDS-stricken Prior Walter (Garfield), the world only spins forward, and, man, has it done some spinning these last 25 years. AIDS is no longer a death sentence – though how anyone could thing that might lessen the play’s impact is dumbfounding – and the up-is-down mendacity of Roy Cohn’s right-wing school of power-broking literally eulogized in Angels has proven more tenacious than even Kushner’s all-seeing seraphim might have imagined.
And yes, we speak of Donald Trump. That one-time (unmentioned by Kushner) protege of the play’s great villain Roy Cohn (Lane, at a career peak), now hovers over so much of Angels in America that jokes about political corruption, greed and pulling lies from thin air could seem too on-the-nose if you didn’t know when they’d been written.
But Angels was never just a missive from the front lines, and topical relevance by way of politics, the environment and immigration – all subjects included in those “national themes” – is more amusing than essential.
Angels, directed by Marianne Elliott (War Horse, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time), works today because, well, the play works – and in this production significantly more than in Michael Greif’s cramped 2010 Off Broadway staging. Even when Ian MacNeil’s spare, neon-lit, into-the-void scenic design lacks either heavenly grandeur or hospital-room specificity, and the many-handed puppetry that worked so well for War Horse renders an Angel that is, in the end, just too earth-bound, this revival pulses with Kushner’s explosive imagination and a cast that comes thrillingly close to the emotional power of the original ’93 cast.
Chief among them being Lane, who, as the McCarthy-toadying, Rosenberg-killing Roy Cohn, doesn’t so much abandon his great actorly clown persona as contorting it to something monstrous, pathetic and dangerous. Or, as another character describes Reagan’s America, “Terminal, crazy and mean.”
Set in 1985 New York (and places far off terra firma, but you know that), the two halves of Angels – Millennium Approaches and Perestroika (and blast anyone still whining about which is better) criss-crosses the interwoven lives of two couples, their friends and an enemy or two. Garfield plays Prior Walter, a one-time drag queen and minor trust-fund blue-blood scion living through what seems almost certain to be the final stages of AIDS.
He’s been abandoned by his lover of four years, the self-lacerating, self-justifying Louis Ironson (James McArdle), who has taken up romantically – or at least sexually – with Joe Pitt (Pace), the closeted Mormon Republican lawyer living in Brooklyn Heights with his neurotic pill-popping, hallucinating wife Harper (Denise Gough, underplaying until it counts).
The handsome, butch Joe, for more reasons than one, has come under the tutelage of Cohn, himself dying of AIDS and determined to beat his political enemies one last time. He’ll need Joe’s help and shrinking integrity to do it.
There are ghosts (the wonderful Susan Brown plays Ethel Rosenberg when she’s not Joe’s acidic mother Hannah Pitt), and, of course, angels, chiefly the one (Amanda Lawrence) who calls the maybe-hallucinating Prior to serve as the prophet of a Great Work for the new millennium.
With the exception of Pace, the cast has arrived en masse from London’s National Theatre, and they’ve by and large settled into their roles superbly (including McArdle, a Scottish actor who initially had some trouble taming Louis’ New York Jewish neuroticism.)
Pace (Guardians of the Galaxy, Halt and Catch Fire) replaces London’s Russell Tovey, and might be the best Joe I’ve seen outside of Mike Nichols’ HBO adaptation, which Patrick Wilson so dominated. In a preview performance, Pace went a bit flat at points, particularly during a comic scene with Garfield and the remarkable Nathan Stewart-Jarrett (as nurse Belize). Little matter. Handed a character the play never fully embraces or resolves, Pace delivers the nuance and depth needed to ready Joe for any number of futures we might assign him.
I’ve saved Garfield for last, not only because he’s the production’s young, movie-friendliest draw but because his performance is the trickiest. Forget that he’s competing against the memory of the definitive Stephen Spinella – that only matters to Spinella and those who saw him. He’s charming, certainly, and brings all the heartbreak anyone could ask, but his all-in too-soon anguish, with its stylized, high-pitched, sobbing flourishes, seems an overcompensation, a puffing up to match the scope of Kushner’s cosmos. The journey from Manhattan to heaven and back is a long one, and Garfield could put a little extravagance in reserve without clipping the wings of this outstanding production in the slightest.
Angels in America is playing at the Nederlander Organization’s Neil Simon Theatre.
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