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Angels in America

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Angels in America
Christian Borle and Zachary Quinto.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Can a document of the infinite span of history and the panoply of the United States’s social potential compact itself into quaintness within one generation? Or is that just a sign that perhaps it wasn’t so spectacular to begin with? History and the U.S. have earned the benefit of the doubt; Angels in America, not quite so much. Tony Kushner’s sprawling fever dream about death of the body and the apotheosis of the spirit, of ordinary people and full countries alike, is now being revived in a Signature Theatre Company production at Peter Norton Space that makes you realize how small and localized a rallying cry this truly is.

For the vast majority of plays produced in New York in the last 40 or 50 years, this issue would not even elicit a second thought. But Kushner’s work, though scarcely 20 years old, is all about defying expectations of economy, convention, and conventional wisdom. With a running time of seven hours, divided into two (roughly) equal chapters called “Millennium Approaches” and “Perestroika,” nothing about it is supposed to be — or can be — small. Even its subtitle, “A Gay Fantasia on National Themes,” pronounces its coruscating importance with every syllable. But at its heart, or so Michael Greif’s new production insists, this is nothing more than an intimately intended work that wants only to step onto the great American soapbox, speak its peace with a megaphone, and then back away so others can complete the tasks it identifies.

Sorry, no — the rules don’t always change so easily. Say what you will about its cascade of glittery premieres in the early 1990s, which climaxed with its two halves’ New York runs being granted as-yet unparalleled raves by New York Times critic Frank Rich, this is a show that has always dreamed and acted bigger than most of us can imagine. Likewise, whether or not you agree with his tone and politics, Kushner went so far beyond himself with Angels that it and he, for better or (more likely) worse, can only be responsibly assessed in the grandiose terms scientists typically reserve for the Planck epoch and political pundits for President Obama.

So, let’s get down to it: Angels in America may be a great play, but it’s not an especially good one.

Angels in America
Frank Wood
Photo by Joan Marcus.

That’s not to say it’s bad — or at least all bad. The first half, “Millennium Approaches,” is thoughtful and watchable, if seldom objectively deep, stage drama. Kushner smartly lays out his themes of religion versus secularity, gay romance versus noncommittal love, and of course left versus right politics, all while weaving his characters into a modern crazy-quilt of concepts so smoothly that you feel as if you’ve known them a lifetime after you’ve been around them only a few minutes.

The crucial ones are Prior Walter and infamous New York prosecutor (and D.C. power player) Roy Cohn, both gay (though only the former openly) and wasting away from AIDS; Prior’s lover, the always-polemical Louis Ironson; and Joe Pitt, a married and closeted Mormon angling for Roy to get him a Washington job. Orbiting this quartet are Joe’s depressive, pill-popping wife, Harper, and well-meaning mother, Hannah; the gay black nurse, Belize, whose personal and professional lives intersect with almost everyone at one point or another; and an Angel, who’s gently tormenting Prior by deeming him the Prophet tasked with spreading “the great work.” (Other vivid personalities, ranging from interdimensional travel agents and ancient rabbis to Prior’s reincarnated ancestors and Cohn-convicted traitor Ethel Rosenberg, emerge and vanish back into this same group.)

It’s an incendiary setup, to be sure, but Kushner doesn’t let it get the better of him. By focusing so tightly on the characters and their dilemmas as they relate to the direction of their souls and of America, he wrangles a potentially messy play into one that seizes your attention almost throughout. Its interlocking framework — of how Washington and Salt Lake City impact each other, how coincidence begets betrayal (and vice versa), and how fantasy and fact intertwine — never gets old, or too absurd to follow, and never quite drowns in pretentious portentousness. Whether the play itself is singularly inventive is another matter, but what’s crystal clear throughout every minute of “Millennium Approaches” is that Kushner sought to write an AIDS play unlike any other — and succeeded.

With “Perestroika” he reversed course, to disastrous effect. This unbearably deliberate conclusion spoils most of its predecessor’s creativity and goodwill by doing what “Millennium Approaches” refuses to: choosing face-smacking obviousness over subtlety at every conceivable juncture. Endless minutes are devoted to mechanical screeds about Reaganism, most of the figurative plotting becomes ham-fistedly literal (the amount of time expended on “Roy Cohn–hoards–AZT” is impressively bewildering), and all the magic of Part One is sucked into a dramatic black hole from which no entertainment can escape. (Among the instabilities: Harper’s protracted flights of drug-induced fancy waste her character rather than explaining it; and Part One’s thrilling lone Angel becomes afterlife overkill when an entire council of them convenes in Heaven at the climax of “Perestroika.”)

Angels in America
Zoe Kazan and Bill Heck.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Signature’s version of “Perestroika” is, by press accounts, Kushner’s third — I hope he’s working on a fourth. He’s never come close to extending the themes of Part One without spoiling them, or letting the story evolve naturally rather than implode under its own self-satisfied weight. By the epilogue, a thinly veiled plea for adopting socialism hand-in-hand with tolerance, the ideas have been completely subsumed by the Message, and that’s nowhere near as interesting or insightful.

Though, in truth, the entire production has difficulty staying afloat. Downplaying the swirling spectacle original director George C. Wolfe wielded with abandon, Greif locates nothing new and misplaces layers that might embellish, rather than detract from, the details lining this overstuffed play’s edges. Greif views the work as a medical drama, with ponderous applications of Ben Stanton’s lights rather than sharp blackouts and fluid cross-fades that might heighten the atmosphere of unreal reality. He’s also undecided what to do with Mark Wendland’s set, whether to allow it to be a literal hospital (metal tracks on a suspended ceiling enable a system of moving curtains) or a hazy dreamscape; it only barely passes as the former, and not at all as the latter. Clint Ramos’s costumes are generally acceptable, but the Angel that is supposed to be swathed in radiant glory instead appears cheap, her wings constructed from what looks like petrified Christmas tree tinsel.

The performers tend to fall into the same trap, albeit with widely varying results. Frank Wood is terrific as Roy in some ways, really tied into his obsessive-compulsive anger and grease-filled veins, but is too unthreatening to convince you he’s ever inspired fear in anyone, even when collaborating with Joseph McCarthy. As Prior, Christian Borle makes no false moves, but he’s also not an all-encompassing presence; you don’t feel that his powers extend beyond his fingertips. Zachary Quinto brings an appealingly dark intensity to Louis, and Bill Heck (recently seen, in this same theatre, as the lead in the even-more-epic Orphans’ Home Cycle) finds Joe’s brighter and lighter tones, but neither actor delves particularly deep. Robin Bartlett is a fine embodiment of maternal comic grace as Joe’s mother, and Robin Weigert is slow-burn celestial as the Angel. Billy Porter fills Belize to the brim with grounded audaciousness; he’s probably the best-cast performer in the show.

The worst is Zoe Kazan, who’s so shrill, screechy, and so unlikeable as Harper, you feel worse for Joe having to put up with her than for her losing the only man she’s ever loved. Give Kazan credit, though, for trying to bring the work up to size — would that everyone else tried as hard. The performances’ lackadaisical, movie-of-the-week qualities, paired with Greif’s direction, never let this Angels soar. (The 2003 TV miniseries, buoyed by the likes of Meryl Streep and Al Pacino, was much more towering.)

Angels in America
Billy Porter, Robin Weigert, and Christian Borle.
Photo by Richard Termine.

When treated meek, weak, and small, there’s no hiding that Angels in America is ultimately about only a handful of people, and doesn't always electrically trade on its sea-to-shining-sea outrage. You want to extrapolate from what’s onstage that there are, or rather should be, bigger implications — but it's tough. A more dynamic production would camouflage these limitations, but it wouldn’t restore the experience of living through what seemed to be the End Days — you had to be there, then, for that conceit to support the action. Without it, and with the reduction of AIDS as an immediate, cataclysmic threat to humanity, this play is revealed as the not-always-distinctive period piece it's always been.

It’s probably best that the dreams, fears, gains, and losses of that time cannot be replicated today, but Angels in America will never be the same: It was the right play for the time, but it’s a time that’s now all but ended. If, as the Angel and Prior speak at the end of each half, “the Great Work Begins,” then how has it progressed, and where — if anywhere — will it end? The world of 1993 needed the questions Angels in America asked then. We need different questions, and perhaps a few answers, today. This play and production offer very few of either.


Angels in America
Through February 20
Signature Theatre Company's Peter Norton Space, 555 West 42nd Street between 10th & 11th Avenue
Tickets online and current performance schedule at www.signaturetheatre.org