Angels in America” is a play about everything that somehow feels like a play specifically about you.
Under the right circumstances, the six hours that make up its two parts will go by in a flash. Audiences lucky enough to have witnessed a keen interpretation of Tony Kushner’s two-part masterpiece, which debuted on Broadway in 1993, have been known to stagger out of the theater in a state not unlike withdrawal, their eyes red from crying and their heads swimming with unanswerable questions.
The play’s two parts, “Millennium Approaches” and “Perestroika,” are now on stage in the Subversive Theatre Collective’s Manny Fried Playhouse, in rotation through Feb. 16.
The play is an immensity, overstuffed with ideas and full of as much suffering, as much love – and as many well-placed jokes – as any American play. But it’s also a deeply personal tale about a group of individuals seemingly as different from one another as it is possible for Americans to be, each one scraping and clawing his or her way toward a true identity.
In the first scenes, Kushner introduces us in stunning fashion to a character based on the motor-mouthed and much-hated conservative lawyer and eventual AIDS victim Roy Cohn, along with his entirely fictional young protégé, the buttoned-up Mormon law clerk Joe Pitt. In a scene that sets the strange magical tone of the play, we meet Pitt’s emotionally unstable wife, Harper, in the midst of a Valium-induced hallucination.
And finally we meet two young men, longtime boyfriends Prior Walter and Louis Ironson (who through years of repeated readings, performances and viewings of Mike Nichols’ extraordinary HBO film of the play, have come to seem more real to me than any other characters in literature).
As they sit at a bus stop in Manhattan, Prior, in his snarky way, reveals to his boyfriend the first of what will become many Kaposi’s sarcoma lesions – a precursor to full-blown AIDS, which at the time was considered a death sentence. “I’m a lesionnaire. The Foreign Lesion. The American Lesion. Lesionanaire’s disease,” Prior says, not so subtly masking his pain in intentionally terrible puns.
That first crack in the foundation signals the coming seismic shift for the characters, who will be driven apart by Prior’s illness and into the orbits of Joe Pitt, Roy Cohn, Harper and others. It also signals the trouble in their country, divided in the 1980s as it is today between equally powerful conservative and progressive urges.
After that terrible revelation, Kushner’s play is off and running, surprising us at every turn as its characters discover what it means to be Mormon, what it means to be conservative or liberal, what it means to be gay and what it means to be American in the twilight of the 20th century. In the course of the play, which takes place largely in New York City, angels appear, heaven shakes and the dead speak.
The circumstances under which the Subversive Theatre Collective has mounted the play on the company’s small stage in the cavernous Great Arrow Building on Elmwood Avenue are not ideal. In order to pull off the most ambitious theatrical gambit in its decadelong history, the company enlisted two directors, who in turn recruited two separate casts with the promise of adding even more dimensions to Kushner’s already multidimensional characters.
The result is compelling in at least a dozen ways, largely because of actors like Jonathan Shuey and Greg Howze, whose work rises to the stratospheric challenges of the text. Those performances make it good enough for dedicated theater fans, and those who already know and love “Angels in America,” to see at least once.
But in the ways that really count – the ways that rivet the eyes of new audience members to the stage, that crack open young minds and mint new theater lovers the way only great plays can, it falls short.
First the good, of which there is plenty:
Both parts feature compelling performances of Roy Cohn, to whom Kushner has given the best speeches and many of the best jokes. In “Millennium Approaches,” directed by Christopher Standart, Tim Joyce has all the frenetic energy you could hope to see in the character, and Jerrold Brown, in “Perestroika,” directed by Christian Brandjes, has all the strange vulnerability of a man fighting to preserve his reputation even as he wastes away from AIDS.
Jonathan Shuey, in part one, brings the naivete of Joe Pitt – the confused Mormon, Republican lawyer – to stunning life in what is probably the finest performance in the show. Brian Zybala, his counterpart in “Perestroika,” sustains the momentum ably. And Greg Howze, as Prior’s friend and Cohn’s nurse Belize, is the epitome of compassionate sass, ticking off one-liners with the skill of a great comedian. Likewise, Xavier Harris, the star of Road Less Traveled’s popular “Insidious,” keeps the ball rolling in “Perestroika.”
In “Perestroika,” Geoff Pictor brings Prior much closer to earth than his “Millennium Approaches” counterpart in a performance that is sure to become even better as the run progresses. Adam Yellen paints a three-dimensional picture of Louis, a wounded soul who continually dooms himself to unhappiness.
Much of the rest of the cast is capable if not transcendent, with inspired attempts from Kirstin Bentley and Megan Callahan as Harper, Gail Golden and Virginia Brannon as Hannah Pitt (Joe’s mother) and, especially, Joy Scime and Darleen Pickering Hummert as the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg.
Setting the bar
Now, the bad:
In “Millennium Approaches,” Prior (Brian Riggs) and Louis (Mike Votta) are deeply miscast. Riggs’ supremely affected performance reminds audiences at every turn that he is acting. It therefore does not overcome, as a more naturalistic performance could, the fact that Riggs’ age significantly exceeds that of his character.
Votta, who has been impressive in past appearances at Torn Space Theater and elsewhere, plays Louis as a strange variant on a Brooklyn mobster and misses the emotional fragility of the character almost entirely.
In both productions, the projection design by Seth Tyler Black constantly asserts itself at inappropriate times and places, as a stand-in for the audience’s own imagination. This problem is most evident in “Millennium Approaches,” when the beautiful writing of Harper’s Act One hallucination must compete for the audience’s attention with a theaterwide screen-saver.
The magical elements in both productions don’t measure up to Kushner’s vision for them, which he spelled out in the first pages of “Millennium Approaches.” They should be, as Kushner wrote, “bits of wonderful theatrical illusion – which means it’s OK if the wires show, and maybe it’s good that they do, but the magic should at the same time be thoroughly amazing.” The clip-art animated angel wings in this production don’t do the trick.
Subversive’s flawed “Angels,” like too much theater in Buffalo, hamstrings itself by setting the bar inordinately high and then not allowing itself enough training to jump over it. This would be a moot point if we didn’t know that Subversive and these two casts and directors were capable of better. But they are.
Even so, this major effort is worthy of sustained applause. It gives us a long-delayed look at a play that asks at least as many questions as it answers and confronts audiences with a dozen challenging moral propositions.
That same play also reaches so deeply into the flawed humanity of its characters that we feel like we have met them personally. For lifelong, incurable fans of “Angels in America” like myself, that will be much more than enough.