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New York City Theater

"Angels in America"
Neil Simon Theater

We have been abandoned. In Tony Kushner’s astounding, passionate, sardonic, moving seven-and-a-half hour, two-part masterpiece, “Angels in America,” nether religion nor governments nor pills can assuage the feeling that we are alone on a spinning planet in unending space. (“The World and its beautiful particle logic, all collapsed.”)

The current revival of the work first seen on Broadway 25 years ago, returns in a thrilling National Theater production starring Andrew Garfield and Nathan Lane. It may have lost some of its contemporary references but not its depth. Great works of art, like humans, are mutable entities, changing with time: “Hamlet” when you’re 20 is different from “Hamlet when you’re 70. Yet the human element remains.

Under Marianne Elliott’s encompassing direction (she received Tony Awards for “War Horse” and “The Curious Incident”), this “Angels” goes beyond the years when AIDS was rampant and incurable and Ronald Reagan was the clueless president. Elliott has melded even the plays’ more verbose, philosophical aspects into a whole, emphasizing the possibilities of life within death, of change within stasis.

For all its intellectual appeal and daring theatricality – its toying with sexual, political, sociological, cosmic, biblical, parental and romantic tropes – “Angels” brims over with humor. Much is campy, as in this exchange: “Are you a hairdresser?” asks a disheveled woman. “Well, it would be your lucky day if I was,” answers one of the gay characters.

Let’s not forget the subtitle, “A Gay Fantasia on National Themes.” Now perhaps more “National” than “Gay,” it’s still a landmark LGBT work. And, for all its pessimism (it abounds in cemetery images) still hopeful. (“The Great Work begins.”)

One link of past to present is the character of Roy M. Cohn, the flamboyant, despicable power broker whose genealogy descends from Joseph McCarthy to Donald Trump, for whom he was attorney and mentor. The current president apparently learned a lot about litigation, bullying and deception from this “polestar of human evil.”

In part one, “Millennium Approaches,” we meet Prior Walter, a Mayflower and Norman Conquest descendant, who has contracted AIDS. His lover, the guilt-ridden Jewish clerk, Louis Ironson, unable to face the responsibility of caring for the seriously ill Prior, walks out. Tending to Prior shifts to the sympathetic, efficient black nurse, Belize, a former drag queen and Prior’s former lover.

Louis, devastated by his own actions, seduces the Mormon, bisexual closet case, Joe Pitt, who works for Cohn. The latter, dying of AIDS, refuses to admit he’s gay, telling his doctor, “Homosexuals are men who know nobody and who nobody knows. Who have zero clout. Does this sound like me?”

Joes’ wife, Harper Pitt, a Valium-popping, hallucinatory mess, conjures a go-between named Mr. Lies and imagines herself escaping to Antarctica. Add to the cast Joe’s mom, the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, whom Cohn sent to the electric chair and waits for him to die, a rabbi, and a pair of historical ancestors.

And, of course, the terrifying Angel, whose admonishments and predictions dominate part two, the prolix, metaphysical “Perestroika.” No longer a figure in “unearthly white,” as in the original production, here she’s a fierce street person, dressed in rags with the remnants of a tattered American flag at her waist. Labeling Prior a prophet, she awakens him to a world that “only spins forward.”

Director Elliott wondrously maneuvers the plays’ pathos, humor, insight, idealism, realism and surrealism. Her cast, which the audience applauds for their commitment as much as their artistry, is headed by Andrew Garfield. His Prior Walter is a portrait of a man who greets distress with mordant humor. The actor’s teetering between love and hate, between bravado and fear, is mind-spinning and stunning.

Nathan Lane makes Cohn a figure of pity as well as terror, turning even his worst excesses into a fabric of loneliness and need. James McArdle is superb as the regret-riddled Louis. Lee Pace’s Joe Pitt, Nathan Stewart-Jarrett’s Belize and Denise Gough’s Harper Pitt are memorable characterizations. Amanda Lawrence and Susan Brown are versatile in the many other roles, with Brown piercing as the enigmatic Ethel Rosenberg.

Ian MacNeil’s scenery, with its rolling walls in “Millennium,” its sterile expanses in “Perestroika,” Paule Constable’s anarchic lighting, Nicky Gillibrand’s earthly and heavenly costume and Adrian Sutton’s melodramatic music all comment on the plays’ path from particular to universal.

The absorbing “Angels in America” recognizes this nation’s power as well as its ambivalence, its idealism as well as its hypocrisy. Although there may be holes in the ozone layer, although the world may be coming to an end, there is hope in community. “The dead will be commemorated and will struggle on with the living, and we are not going away.”

--David A. Rosenberg
April 1, 2018

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