Regional Reviews: Boston
Angels in America: Millennium Approaches
But as we await the arrival of an angelic messenger, there is also hope and promise. Are we at the end of days or are we at the dawning of a new and better world?
In Central Square Theater's new production, Angels in America: Millennium Approaches feels as vital as ever. This first chapter of Kushner's two-part play opened on Broadway in 1993, after the Reagan and Bush administrations, as AIDS continued to eviscerate the gay community. But while much has changed, Kushner foreshadows today's political landscape with uncanny precision. With anti-trans and anti-gay legislation currently sweeping legislatures across the country, and the Supreme Court's rollback of Roe v. Wade, Roy Cohn and his lackeys' dream of stacking the courts with conservative judges seems to have finally come to fruition. "America has rediscovered itself. Its sacred place among nations," Joe asserts, in words that feel eerily familiar. "And people aren't ashamed of that like they used to be."
I expect anyone who's only seen a large-scale production of Angels in America will be riveted by this pared-down co-presentation of Central Square Theater and Bedlam theatre company (New York City). Helmed by Bedlam's Artistic Director Eric Tucker, who also leads a cast of eight as the supercilious Roy Cohn, this bare staging is urgent and insistent. Most importantly, the whole ensemble works together seamlessly to give Kushner's words their due.
At the center of the cast is Eddie Shields's world-weary Prior, who is diagnosed with AIDS in 1985 New York City. Prior is quick to fend off the horrors of his condition with a flared brow and a sharp quip, but we see in Shields's portrayal how his flamboyance is amplified to mask his deepest insecurities. His fear of rejection proves true when his longtime boyfriend Louis (Zach Fike Hodges) walks out because he can't handle Prior's deterioration.
Debra Wise impresses as Prior's punctilious mother Hannah, plus a trio of other characters: an ancient rabbi, a doctor, and the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg. While the character of Belize, a nurse and ex-drag queen, veers close in Kushner's writing to a stereotypical magical Black caregiver, I enjoyed Maurice Emmanuel Parent's well-rounded take, especially seeing Belize thoroughly shaken caring for Prior in his hospital bed.
The infamous real-life lawyer Roy Cohn, whose clients once included Donald Trump and Rupert Murdoch, is played here by Tucker as a sleek and sleazy Patrick Bateman type. It's an intriguing portrayal, with a certain mannered charisma that covers up the bland evil underneath. Tucker's Cohn is easily flirtatious; his efforts to woo his mentee Joe Pitt (Nael Nacer) into taking a high-profile job in Washington feel sexually charged. Perhaps he can see what Joe can't first see in himself. Nacer makes it evident just how long Joe has bottled up his own desires, suppressing them for so long until he can't avoid them any longer–or his pill-addicted wife, Kari Buckley's wry Harper.
Though the sparseness of this production is effective, the scenic design (a set of beige curtains reminiscent of a hospital ward) is underwhelming. The only furniture is made up of several rolling desk chairs, often sent spinning across the stage, which evoke a certain eighties-era banality: the Wall Street corporate class, perhaps, looming over the disenfranchised. More effective is the lighting design by John R. Malinowski, veering between realistic and surreal, with liberal use of handheld spotlights maneuvered by the cast that become increasingly nightmarish and claustrophobic. The eventual arrival of Helen Hy-Yuen Swanson's Angel may be the most terrifying design of the night.
Our intimacy with the actors in this small space can be unnerving and even suffocating. As Prior writhes on the floor in the night, begging Louis not to call an ambulance despite the pain, his up-close agony feels visceral. But there is plenty of whimsy, too: the use of actors as background props; the '80s pop hits that play before and after each act; the cast's occasional breaking of the fourth wall. It feels right that they make eye contact with us; we are here to receive their story, a history of what we lived through.
What keeps us listening to this story is the unrestrained humanity with which Kushner charts his characters. Everyone is holding on as best they can in this uncertain world, their flaws and imperfections exposed. We see Louis's self-inflicted punishment after he leaves Prior. We understand how Hannah Pitt would be compelled to travel to her son, even though she cannot bring herself to accept his coming-out. Even the devil himself, Roy Cohn, gains something bordering on compassion as AIDS starts to take over his body.
Early in the play, Prior tells a story of his ancestor: the captain of a ship of immigrants coming to the New World. When the boat got overcrowded, the crew would throw passengers overboard one by one, and the ship eventually arrived with only nine of its original seventy in tow. Of course, the flaw was in the boat's design; but the ones in charge never thought of their passengers as human beings.
May we learn from the horrors of the past, this play says to us, stripped down to its flesh and blood. May we be the ones who build a better future.
Angels in America: Millennium Approaches, a co-presentation of Central Square Theater and Bedlam, runs through May 28, 2023 at Central Square Theater, 450 Massachusetts Ave, Cambridge MA. For tickets and information, please visit CentralSquareTheater.org or call 617-576-9278, ext 1.
Director: Eric Tucker