Tony Kushner’s massive work “Angels in America” is subtitled “A Gay Fantasia on National Themes” and divided into two parts, “Millennium Approaches” and “Perestroika.” They have been revived as a unit in an awesome production by the Signature Theatre Company. Originally presented in New York in 1993, both plays have landed with their wings intact thanks to the splendidly imaginative direction of Michael Greif. While it is perhaps preferable to see this seven-hour epic-scaled play in one day, it can be also experienced (as I did) on two consecutive evenings. If a refresher is needed, the plays use the AIDS epidemic as a defining metaphor for the eroding of our country’s moral and ethical posturing during the 1980s.
There is, at the end of the first three-and-one-half hours, including two intermissions, a feeling that a remarkably stirring and unconventional theatrical experience is passionately and purposefully unfolding. Unquestionably the plays are a huge, impressive endeavor for an Off Broadway theater group. But these plays have also been acknowledged as an impressive endeavor for Kushner, who has implanted in them much that is skillful and much that is soulful.
As a result of this production, I have changed my original feelings that the plays collectively take a somewhat archetypal embrace of characters and situations. I can now see, perhaps because of my closeness to the action in a small theater and the vividness of the performances, that the humanity within it is very specific, real, and fully dimensional.
Even as it vehemently condemns the collectively biased course that our nation took during the Reagan/Bush era, it is episodic but not fragmented as the plot revolves around the fatefully integrated lives of five principal characters. In their own way, each is discomforted, disenfranchised, or disillusioned. The characters include a gay couple, one of whom is dying of AIDS; a repressed homosexual Mormon Republican law clerk; his hallucinating agoraphobic wife; and Roy Cohen, the opportunistic, closeted homosexual lawyer.
They are seen plummeting through the play’s social, political, and psychological mayhem, and of course through set designer Mark Wendland’s astonishingly complex, expanding, and contracting, almost pulsating creation. The set is more than a mere marvel of construction and the many settings revolve seamlessly with the help of a sturdy corps of almost invisible (dressed in black) stage hands who never have more than a few minutes rest. Broadway would certainly have done all this mechanically, but to see this accomplished by human hands and brawn is simply amazing. I don’t know that any awards have ever been given to stage hands, but this would surely be the occasion.
More than ever, “Angels in America” seems to be a wildly unconventional, part-real, part-fantasy, part-farce that not only stretches previously prescribed dramatic boundaries, but also gives its characters room to coexist in unorthodox counterpoint to each other. Greif’s direction unleashes an exhilarating freedom of expression in each interlocking scene, as well as within each of the extraordinary actors, many of whom double, triple, and quadruple their roles. This is not to say that this company is either better or worse than the superb actors who inhabited the original production.
Given Kushner’s penchant for broad and brash humor, many of the roles are charged with large doses of vitriol, vinegar, and especially in the case of Cohen, a distinctly vituperative sleaziness. Frank Wood, who won a Tony for his performance in “Side Man” and more recently appeared on Broadway in “August: Osage County,” is scarily brilliant as Cohen, the abrasive, abusive McCarthyite who attempts to further the career of his protege, Joe Pitt. Pitt is impressively acted by Bill Heck, who was so notably the heart and soul of the other epic-length (also at the Signature Theater) “The Orphans’ Home Cycle.” He is perhaps the most outstanding leading man to come along in many a season with his heart-wrenching performance as the guilt-ridden and conflicted Mormon.
Pitt’s personal problems are not only standing in his way up the political ladder, they are also seen infecting the behavior of his neglected, valium-addicted wife, Harper. Zoe Kazan, who was wonderfully kooky as the con artist last season in “A Behanding in Spokane,” defines Harper memorably as a woman living in a perpetual state of poignant disorientation.
But at the heart of the play lies the painful, imploding relationship of a Jewish clerk, Louis (Zachary Quinto), with Prior (Christian Borle), his dying WASP lover. Although we see Louis tortured by his desertion of Prior, it is the ravaged cloak of impending death that Prior wears on his frail shoulders that prepares us for the emotionally explosive finale of Part I, the arrival through a shattering ozone layer of the winged messenger Angel (Robin Weigert) “Isn’t this a little too Stephen Spielberg,” asks the frightened Prior, who has already had visitations from deceased relatives. Evidently it is not for this extraordinary play that harbingers the rebirth of life and consciousness.
“Perestroika” (Part II) concludes with a prophetic and fantastical pilgrimage: one taken by the heart, produced by the mind, and guided by Prior’s soul. Although it is a bit protracted as the play’s theme unfolds as a celebration of the human spirit, it is mercifully never preachy and almost always funnier than you would expect (or as I remembered). The play’s message of a new dawn basks in the light (just the spot to praise Ben Stanton’s stunning lighting) of earthy reality.
The shifting relationships of the characters we first meet in Part I continue to shock, astound, baffle, and amuse us. But now, these left and right wingers, the straights and the gays, are on the verge of resolving their dilemmas. Except for the epilogue, the action unfolds in New York City in 1986 and follows the newly prescribed destiny of Prior as an unlikely, if noticeably unwilling, prophet of his age.
Dying, but spiritually evolving, Prior is the core of “Perestroika.” Emaciated, but driven by a desire to live, he challenges the directives of the descended Angel who has just appointed him a prophet. Allowed a distinct temperament, Weigert portrays the winged messenger with a playfully testy attitude, sometimes sensual even erotically inclined, and sometimes perversely obstreperous. Ascending on a ladder to heaven, as in a dizzying dream, Prior takes his case before an entire council of rather woebegone angels who sense that they have been deserted by God.
“Perestroika” doesn’t depend on restraint. It relies on the wisdom of wit and comic intrusions. Time plays tricks on the memory, but I suspect that the male and female nudity and the graphic sexual encounters are perhaps more explicitly staged than I can recall. If I admit to getting a little weary during the time allotted to Roy Cohen, there is no denying that his virulent tirades, even at the moment of his death, resonate with self-immortalizing gall.
Some characters who seem fragmented in “Millennium” become more important in “Perestroika.” Billy Porter is touching and funny as Belize, the former drag queen who becomes a no-nonsense nurse. Robin Bartlett is terrific as Hannah, Joe Pitt’s mother, a devout Mormon who finds an unexpected resurgence of her real self and of her faith, as she unwittingly becomes an inspiration and support to Prior.
But what an inspiration it must have been for this cast to have a director who fearlessly catapults them from this world into the next. If you’ve already been prepped by sitting for seven hours at “Gatz,” you are also likely to find that the same amount of time spent with “Angels in America” is actually a breeze. Maybe it’s the flapping of wings. ****
“Angels in America,” through Sunday, February 20, Signature Theater Company, Peter Norton Space, 565 West 42nd Street. $85. 212-744-7529.