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A CurtainUp Review
Angels in America:
Millennium Approaches & Perestroika
A Gay Fantasia on National Themes
By Elyse Sommer
Instead it's a speech written by Tony Kushner for a scene in Angels in America, his 1991 epic response to the Reagan administration's failure to respond to the AIDS crisis. It's in a scene between Martin Heller, an uber-conservative justice department administrator and the Mephistophelean lawyer Roy Cohn. As both Heller and Cohn see eye to eye on America in that new Millennium, it's no wonder that Heller is Cohn's go-to source for pushing his similarly hateful agenda and collecting favors.
That the-average-American-be-damned creed excerpted above is too long to be one of our current President's ill-considered tweets. Neither is it attributable to a Fox News pundit or one of the Republican legislators who shamelessly support his unpresidential behavior. Instead it's a speech written by Tony Kushner for a scene in Angels in America, his Pulitzer Prize winning epic response to the Reagan administrations failure to respond to the AIDS crisis that was especially devastating for gay men. The scene is between Martin Heller, an uber-conservative justice department administrator and the Mephistophelean lawyer Roy Cohn. As Cohn share's Heller's view of America in that new Millennium, it's no wonder he uses him to push his similarly hateful agenda and to collect favors.
The remarkably ripped from the latest news reports excerpt quoted above settles any questions about Angels in America's relevancy. A play about a Gay-centric health and social catastrophe is not too much of its era to warrant investing over seven hours of your time.
Granted, the plot still revolves around a group of characters affected by the AIDS epidemic and the intolerance towards same sex relations, even though an AIDS diagnosis is no longer a death sentence, and fewer and fewer gay men (and women) feel compelled to keep their true identity in the closet. But Kushner's play, with its detours into magic realism and philosophical introductory prologues is also true to the last two words of its subtitle A Gay Fantasia on National Themes.
And so, as someone who's seen various productions of Angels . . . (the original pre-Curtainup Broadway version, the 2003 HBO mini series, the 2010 Off-Broadway revival , the opera presented last year by the New York City Opera Company), the revival that began life in London and is now at the Neil Simon is eerily relevant in the light of escalating climate change, mounting deaths from terrorist attacks and from an opoid epidemic that's not limited to one segment of the population.
Kushner used his brilliantly imaginative voice in behalf the agonizing plight of the Gay community. But his sprawling play was prescient in so many ways that it's now a universal story that happens to feature numerous Gay characters in crisis situations.
With all its dark issues, Angels. . . is also enormously entertaining, thanks to Kushner's uncanny ability to create a work full of complex characters and dynamic staging opportunities for actors and directors. Despite all the anger, fear, pain and despair about the country's chilly political climate on display, this is a very funny and even hopeful play. Surely, we all meed more than a spoonful of both laughter and hope these days.
To begin with the director. Marianne Elliott, best known for her inventive staging of War Horse and The Curious Incident of the Dog at Midnight, has brought the same wizardry to this Angels. She s blessed with a superb design team to make everything, including her spectacular new handling of the Angels, fit the grandeur of Kushner's visionary script.
While the revival at the Signature's smaller home on Forty-Second Street, afforded an intimacy and closeness to the actors no matter where you sat, Elliott's slick production fits this much larger house most effectively. Ian MacNeil's turntable set pieces are aptly underscored by Ian Dickinson's jarring sound design. Paule Constable's scarily cool fluorescent bars and allows the action to shift seamlessly between scenes in hospital rooms, apartments, offices, restaurants and street scenes. These scenic shifts also allow two separate interactions to often play out simultaneously.
All the inventiveness by Elliott and her team supports rather than tampers Kushner's audaciously real and surreal story telling and interlinked array of unforgettable characters — all performed by a cast that confirms that these characters bring out the best in their interpreters.
The play's focal characters are a pair of Gay lovers, Prior Walters (Andrew Garfield) and Louis Ironson (James McCardle)— Garfield's Prior poignantly journeying from anger and terror to the strength and determination needed to survive, and McCardle's Louis getting the liberal politics spouting semi-villain right enough for us to be glad he gets the redemption he doesn't really deserve.
Mirroringing Prior and Louis's troubled relationship, is the couple whose Mormon faith exacerbates rather than helps them deal with his deeply closeted homosexuality: Harper (Denise Gough fully captures the emotional fragility of the frustrated wife who finally gains the strength to abandon her reliance on valium and a fantasy life to leave her dysfunctional marriage); Joe Pitt (Lee Pace, who nails the conflicted Republican Mormon lawyer's journey into embracing his true self).
A fifth critical character interlinked with these couples is another AIDS sufferer, the unscrupulous Roy Cohn (Nathan Lane, the cast's only big marquee name, is a marvelous as the maniacally awful Roy Cohn). The fictionalized Cohn is a mentor to Joe Pitt, as he was many years ago to the young Donald Trump. Like the real Cohn, Lane's insists he has liver cancer and not the disease he associates with powerless people. But whatever he calls it, AIDS it is. And Ethel Rosenberg (Susan Brown), whose electrocution as a communist spy was the result of Cohn's power wielding, is the ghost gleefully watching him grow weaker and weaker.
While everyone, even those in the key roles, gamely take on additional roles. That includes making them participants in Ms. Elliott's sinister take on the Angels. The most versatile multi-tasker on board is Susan Brown. She plays nine male and female characters, two of whom are the Rabbi and the the World's oldest living Bolshevik open The Millennium Approaches and Perestroika.
While Mr. Kushner has diddled with the script over the years, it's still a somewhat flawed masterpiece, with the flaws most evident in the second part which is over-indulgently long. But ignore my quibble. Whether you see each part on separate evenings or all in one day, as I did, the hours spent with this Angels in America provide the most satisfyingly grand theatrical outing currently on any New York stage.
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Angels in America: Millennium Approaches & Perestroika
Written by Tony Kushner
Directed by Marianne Elliott;
Cast:Andrew Garfield,Nathan Lane,Susan Brown, Denise Gough,Amanda Lawrence,Lee Pace,Nathan Stewart-Jarrett, Rowan Ian Seamus Magee,Matty Oaks, Jane Pfitsch,Ron Todorowski, Silvia Vrskova, Lucy York.
Ian MacNeil-Scenic Design< > Nicky Gillibrand -Costume Design
Paule Constable - Lighting Design
Adrian Sutton -Music
Ian Dickinson - Sound Design
Nick Barnes and Finn Caldwell -Puppetry Designers
Chris Fisher- Illusions
Nick Caroto-Hair, wig, makeup-
Robbie Graham-Original Movement
Stage Manager: Kristen Harris
Running Time; 3 hours with 2 intermissions, Part 1; 3 hours and 45 minutes with 2 intermissions, Part 2
Neil Simon Theater W. 52nd Street
From 2/23/18; opening 3/25/18; closing 5/31/18
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at March 21st matinee-evening Press Preview
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