Theatre Review by Howard Miller - March 25, 2018
Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes by Tony Kushner. Directed by Marianne Elliott. Scenic design by Ian MacNeil. Costume design by Nicky Gillibrand. Lighting design by Paule Constable. Puppetry director and movement by Finn Caldwell. Music by Adrian Sutton. Sound design by Ian Dickinson for Autograph. Movement consultant Steven Hoggett. Hair, wig, and makeup design by Rick Caroto. Original movement by Robby Graham. Puppet design by Finn Caldwell and Nick Barnes. Illusions by Chris Fisher. Associate directors Gina Rattan and Miranda Cromwell. Movement associate Patrick McCollum. Design adaptation by Edward Pierce. Cast: Andrew Garfield, Nathan Lane, Susan Brown, Denise Gough, Amanda Lawrence, James McArdle, Lee Pace, Nathan Stewart-Jarrett, Beth Malone, Patrick Andrews, Glynis Bell, Amy Blackman, Curt James, Rowan Ian Seamus Magee, Mark Nelson, Matty Oaks, Genesis Oliver, Jane Pfitsch, Lee Aaron Rosen, Ron Todorowski, Silvia Vrskova, and Lucy York.
There may have been a time, say during the Obama presidency, when Angels would have seemed like a window on the past. We thought then that we were coming into an enlightened era of gay rights. AIDS was a chronic but manageable disease. Attorney Roy Cohn was someone we associated with the 1950s and McCarthyism. It was during that bubble of naïve expectations that the breathtakingly intimate 2010 Off Broadway Signature Theatre production of Angels came about. Then, it seemed like Kushner's work was almost exclusively focused on the AIDS crisis of the 1980s, the decade in which it takes place. Reaganites and the heinous Mr. Cohn were the political villains. Even when New York Mayor Ed Koch put in a cameo appearance as the punch line of a joke, we thought of it as a nod to Larry Kramer's chewing him up and spitting him out in The Normal Heart.
But the passing of time brings fresh insights into the work. Farewell to Obama; say hello to Trump and the virulent world of untethered red/blue vitriol that threatens to consume us all. Homophobic rhetoric, hate crimes, and efforts to curtail gay rights are soaring. HIV/AIDS continues to be an international crisis; in the United States alone, some 7,000 die from the disease annually. And even Mr. Cohn has halted in his downward slide to obscurity when we recently learned he was a mentor to Mr. Trump. In this environment, the National Theatre's Angels seems more political, more contemporary, then ever, with a greater emphasis on those "national themes" that have expanded to include Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, March For Our Lives, and the all-but-dashed hopes of Dreamers. We continue to demonstrate repeatedly that we are "a melting pot where nothing melted," as Kushner puts it.
Now as then, "Millennium Approaches," Part I of the two plays that make up Angels in America, remains a brilliant, nearly flawless work, an astonishing juggling act in which Kushner brilliantly weaves together so many complex ideas: the AIDS crisis, sexual identity, gender roles, the nature of God, U. S. history in the second half of the twentieth century, legal ethics, Judaism, Mormonism, race relations, the healthcare industry, medical ethics, damage to the ozone layer, prescription drug abuse, mental instability, co-dependent behaviors, marriage, loyalty, friendship, and others I am sure I am leaving out. The miracle of "Millennium Approaches" is how the playwright manages to keep all of these together within an intricately designed quilt of reality and fantasy, punctured clichés, surprising turns, unexpected humor, and deep, raw, and keenly felt emotions. The miracle of the National Theatre production is the way in which everything that is going on makes perfect sense, even while it happily embraces overlapping elements of naturalism and expressionism. It's certainly in good hands with director Marianne Elliott, who helmed the similarly-blended War Horse and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.
There never will be a definitive production of Angels. It's too expansive for that. It remains appropriately open to multiple interpretations, both by the creative team and by the individual audience members. We all go in looking for different things. Now more than ever, given our current noxious political climate, I want to see a Roy Cohn who is so repugnant that I can cathartically unleash all my pent-up outrage on him. I want a Louis I can freely abhor, one who shows no possibility of redemption after he abandons his lover in his time of greatest need. But under Ms. Elliott's direction, and in the hands of Nathan Lane as Cohn and James McArdle as Louis, both characters have become more complex, more human, with qualities that allow for the possibility of exoneration. Now the play as a whole, while continuing to embrace its many themes, seems to be as much about acceptance, forgiveness, and the capacity of humans to move forward, alone or among companions, toward some universal healing that has precious little to do with actual angels, or, for that matter, God.
Perhaps it is the passage of time or a familiarity with the work, but all of the characters (with one exception) seem more real than ever. This applies even to the unhinged Harper (a marvelous Denise Gough), whose Valium-infused journey to "Antarctica" in Part II, "Perestroika," is as much a quest for self as it is a mental breakdown. And her determined exit from her screwed-up husband Joe (Lee Pace, the exception, who never seems to be able to pull Joe out of his "spooky Mormon hell dream" mode) is a most contemporary #MeToo moment as she finds the courage to walk out on the lie at the core of her marriage.
In this production, at least, Harper and the terrified AIDS-inflicted Prior Walter (the equally mesmerizing Andrew Garfield) jointly serve as the beating heart of Angels. Even though they do not actually meet as characters in "real life," their shared hallucination/dream in "Millennium Approaches" is the perfect embodiment of their mutual dread. Likewise, their separate battles against and triumph over their demons (or angels, if you will) should give all of us hope. As for that seemingly beyond redemption Louis, who walks away after Prior shows him his KS lesion, he is, in James McArdle's portrayal, an effusive bundle of neuroses, exasperating, to be sure, but not unsalvageable. We fully support Prior's unwillingness to take him back, but we equally can applaud Prior's capacity to forgive and not write Louis off completely, so that it is not really startling to see both of them among the tight-knit group in the very final scene.
The most challenging component of the overall grand design of Angels in America, the element that is the most difficult to parse, is the business with the angels themselves. Marianne Elliott, the director, has found a stellar way to bring in the Angel at the end of "Millennium Approaches." It is a thrilling coup de théâtre, and Amanda Lawrence gives the character a truly other-worldly bestial quality in all of her scenes. Yet, what to do with that image, and the very idea of angels interacting with humans, has always been problematic in "Perestroika." Do you treat the whole thing as a hallucination, a dream, a fantasy sequence, a metaphor, or an authentic experience? In this production, it seems to be a mix of all of these as Prior wrestles with the Angel, ascends as a mortal to heaven, and finds himself in a place of chaos, where God has left his underlings to fend for themselves (rather poorly, as it turns out). It's handled well as a self-contained set piece, but it does disrupt the ongoing story, so that "Perestroika" lacks the cohesion of the finely interwoven tapestry of "Millennium Approaches." Part II works best when it concentrates on its human characters as they sort out their lives.
With respect to the staging, there is not a lot by way of traditional set design, although there is some wonderful work with puppetry, lighting choices, and moments of stage magic, including some very realistic-looking snow and rain. In Part I, scenic designer Ian MacNeil gives us a series of separately rotating cubicles in which individual scenes are played out one at a time. As the play progresses, however, these cubicles open up and spread out across the stage, increasingly allowing the characters to cross each other's paths. Paule Constable's lighting design brings some of the action to the forefront, while we can still see other actions taking place in shadow and silhouette. Eventually, through the use of turntables and elevators, the set becomes more and more expansive, allowing the story to unfold on various levels. It's all quite visually impactful without seeming overly gimmicky.
About the only thing production-wise that I did not care for was Adrian Sutton's insistent and melodramatic musical underscoring, mostly used to mark the passage from scene to scene. But truly, any quibbles I might have are trivial when considering the incredible scope of the phenomenon that is Angels in America. Whether you choose to experience it as a single day-long adventure as I did, or see "Millennium Approaches" and "Perestroika" on separate days, you will find yourself spellbound. This most significant American play continues to remind us of the "Great Work" that is our collective responsibility.