“The Great Work begins,” a wild-eyed Angel loftily proclaims at the harrowing cliffhanger of Angels in America Part One: Millennium Approaches. But wait a sec: Didn’t it begin 25 years ago? As this majestic, exquisitely designed and fiercely acted Broadway revival proves, the work is never done. Tony Kushner’s two-part “gay fantasia on national themes” is a public monument of a play that, like the Lincoln Memorial, bears repeated visits to stiffen one’s spine and strengthen one’s character. Hell, it’s better than that high-minded pile of marble; Angels in America is a breathing, bleeding, crying, screaming force of nature.
Not convinced? I could trot out the usual reasons you should get your tickets now. Like: It’s theater that makes you smarter, a brainy mega-drama that pierced the national discourse on AIDS, faith and progressivism, inspiring countless theater makers. Or: Marianne Elliott’s sleek, neon-accented staging firmly binds the twisting plot strands. No? Nathan Lane’s Roy Cohn and Andrew Garfield’s Prior Walter are master classes in ferocious acting. Okay, how about this: Angels in America is really, really funny.
Like transgressive stand-up funny. Or groundbreaking sitcom funny. Each viewing of Kushner’s seven-hour extravaganza – whether it’s the glamorous 2003 HBO miniseries or the Signature Theatre’s flawed but intimate 2010 revival – reminds you how Kushner gleefully fused high and low. On the one hand, Angels is an avant-garde epic with densely intellectual rhetoric and surreal flourishes: ghosts, talking mannequins and florid hallucinations. On the other hand, it’s structured like a soap opera, replete with sitcom-ish punch lines. AIDS-ravaged Prior Walter languishes feverishly in bed. Trumpets sound and lights blaze as an angel rockets from heaven to his room. Prior’s awestruck whisper: “God almighty. Very Steven Spielberg.” There it is in one line: the cosmic and the camp.
The soap opera quality of Angels comes through in its basic architecture and narrative arc. Like a soap, the script cuts between intimate (often two-person) scenes of seduction, argument, break-ups and showdowns. There’s guilty leftist Louis Ironson (James McArdle) and the caustic, flamboyant Prior (Garfield), a gay couple ripped apart by HIV. Prior contracts it, and the horrified, emotionally stunted Louis flees. A second couple is the closeted Republican Mormon Joe Pitt (Lee Pace) and his manic-depressive, Valium-gobbling wife Harper (Denise Gough). Real-life lawyer and vicious ex-McCarthyite Roy Cohn (Lane) figures into the story as Joe’s toxic mentor. The closeted Cohn is diagnosed as HIV positive and uses his clout to keep it a secret and score experimental drugs. Providing outside perspective (and some of the night’s funniest lines) is Belize (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett), a drag queen, nurse and friend of Prior. Amanda Lawrence juggles a number of roles, including the Angel with a shock of white hair and huge, terrifying wings manipulated around her shoulder blades like puppets.
This production began last year at London’s National Theatre and benefits enormously from the resources and dramaturgical acumen wielded by the world-famous institution. At the risk of sounding Anglophilic, one wonders if stateside producers could have mustered a revival this solid and artistically unified on our shores. From her work on War Horse and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Elliott has distinguished herself as a director for whom set, lights and sound are as integral to dramatic effect as acting.
Luckily, it’s not just stylish window dressing. The aforementioned angel puppet-wings are a cool effect, of course, but they provide a useful metaphor about the innate humanity of the angels – as if those mighty, feathered appendages could be ripped from their frail bodies at any moment. In the first part, Millennium Approaches, Elliott stages the succession of scenes in interior spaces that interlock on three rotating platforms. This conveys a good sense of the first part’s claustrophobic and domestic triptych – private spaces separate but hinged upon each other. In the messier, expansive and more cosmic second half, Perestroika, the walls are banished. We (and the characters) must cope with a brave new world where barriers are blasted away, and the stage’s black void threatens to consume us.
The acting throughout is first-rate, with Lane a standout as the vicious, fire-breathing Cohn, a man who devoured life and belched acid rain. Lane’s impeccable comic timing is on view, sure, but he goes to extremes of loneliness, abjection and agony that fans will find revelatory. Garfield is an actor of bottomless empathy and thoughtfulness, and he goes full throttle as the bitchy, grandiose, ultimately all-too-human Prior. As moral pretzel Louis, McArdle exudes a choir-boy sweetness that grates nicely against his selfishness and sexual greed. And I’ve never fully believed the shade-throwing Belize as much as I did when Stewart-Jarrett embodied him in full color. Kushner crammed so much emotional and social detail into his characters, they practically leap off the stage or the page and hang out with you at home. These actors make the incarnation complete.
I hope I’ve provided enough reasons why you should peel off some green and give the better part of a day to Angels. Go, gasp, gape – and giggle. Angels in America is high art, but it uses the same clay and spit that lowbrow entertainment does: sex, laughs and thrills. I use the comedy and daytime-TV comparisons simply to suggest: Don’t be intimidated by the length or ideological rigor of Kushner’s script. It goes to weird, heady places, but the basic question is, will the human race move forward or remain stuck in place? There’s no easy answer, but the night’s final line provides a clue: “More life.” On a two-show marathon, the day begins with a Jewish grandmother being eulogized in her coffin. It ends at Central Park’s Bethesda Fountain with a man who nearly died but wrestled with angels. May we all live and demand more.
David Cote is a theater critic, journalist, playwright and opera librettist based in New York.