Scott Klavan: Angels in America
Angels in America
By Tony Kushner
Directed by Marianne Elliott
Broadway—Neil Simon Theatre
Part I: Millennium Approaches– 5/8/18; Part II: Perestroika- 5/20/18
Reviewed by Scott Klavan
Angels in America by Tony Kushner is the best new American play on Broadway. Wait a minute. The play was first presented on Broadway twenty-five years ago, in 1993, and this is a review of the revival from The National Theatre in London, featuring Andrew Garfield as Prior Walter and Nathan Lane as Roy Cohn. Yet it can be argued that, since then, no other American play has approached the two-part, 7 ½ hour Angels’ originality, audacity, humanness, and scope. With a story focusing on the AIDS disaster of the ‘80s in New York, suffused with supernatural elements, and a philosophical exploration of the excruciating battle between the known and unknown, visible and invisible in human life, it seems brand new. That observation is both an enthusiastic tribute to the piece and its beautifully envisioned and acted revival, and a chagrined comment on the lateral movement of American playwriting, as well as the subsequent work by Kushner, in the years since its initial staging.
Given its New York setting, topic, and attitudes, it is interesting to note that Angels was developed and premiered on the West Coast, and then in England. It started at the Eureka Theatre in San Francisco, and moved to L.A.’s Mark Taper Forum, from 1990-92, with first part Millennium Approaches performed while second part Perestroika was still being revised. It then transferred to London and both parts opened on Broadway in 1993, directed by George C. Wolfe, where it won the Tony Award for Best Play—and other prizes—in both ’93 and ’94. It was followed by the acclaimed HBO movie of the piece in 2003, directed by Mike Nichols, featuring Al Pacino and Meryl Streep. There was a brief, smaller show at NYC’s Signature Theatre in 2010 and this current revival, directed by Marianne Elliot, began at London’s National Theatre in 2017.
Elliot is best known in the States for her lavish and imaginative staging of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime and War Horse. In those productions, her gargantuan sets, flashing neon lighting, and accoutrements such as giant puppets, helped camouflage the weaknesses and brought to mesmeric life scripts that were, for all of their barking, stamping commotion, straightforward and rather thin. Here, she brings her creativity and activity to a work that is dense, burningly intelligent, and metaphysical, yet poignantly down-to-earth. At times, the sheer number of scene changes and revolving turntables, signifying settings in Part I as diverse as New York’s modest rental apartments, rich Manhattan power offices, threateningly dark city parks, and more, and in Part II, fantastic dreamscapes, a vision of Heaven, threaten to overwhelm the text. But the presentation is fluid and ultimately succeeds in drawing us into the story of gay men, and everyone, wrestling with identity, love, life, and death, during the early days of the AIDS epidemic, and forever, illuminating rather than obscuring the words and relationships. The two sections are animated, daring, forceful, sad, and in Prior Walter’s fevered hallucinations and the visit from the flying Messenger that closes Millennium and during Perestroika, Prior’s ascent to the clouds, literally breathtaking. Modern technology and a high budget enables Aristotelian limits to be thrown out the window, and this marrying of wild extravagance to the deepest human feeling makes for an essential Spectacle.
Star leads Garfield and Lane do committed, hugely moving work, with Garfield really going for broke in his portrayal of the sensitive, flamboyant, tough-minded Prior, already a classic role. Despite his physical miscasting as Roy Cohn, Nathan Lane brings an indefatigable energy and hard-nosed attitudinizing to the part, and old-school show biz laughs and fun as the vision of one of Prior’s English ancestors. These two provide the groundwork for the cast, but it is Lee Pace as the tormented Mormon husband Joe Pitt and James McArdle as Prior’s feckless lover Louis Ironson, who give the production its profound complexity. Both are specific, varied, explosive, and vulnerable. In a part that this revival exposes as somewhat underwritten and one-noted, Denise Gough as the Mormon wife Harper is truthful and effective; in the pivotal part of male nurse Belize, Nathan Stewart-Jarrett effortlessly excellent. (For the record, Garfield, Lane, and Gough were recently nominated for Tony Awards, but the others, perhaps because of their relative lack of fame, were left out. The omissions bring into question the validity of the awards.) There is double and triple-casting throughout, including, as mentioned, Lane, but also Garfield, and it is so expert that the reviewer was amazed in looking at the program after the show to see who played whom.
Twenty-five years after its first Broadway staging, Angels in America is just bigger and better than any major non-musical American play that followed it. Selecting from a list of Tony nominees or winners, works by Terrence McNally (Love! Valour! Compassion!), Edward Albee (The Goat or Who Is Sylvia?) Suzan Lori-Parks (Topdog/Underdog), Richard Greenberg (Take Me Out), Doug Wright (I Am My Own Wife), John Patrick Shanley (Doubt), Tracy Letts (August: Osage County), Stephen Adly Guirgis (The Motherfucker With The Hat), Christopher Durang (Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike) Stephen Karam (The Humans), Lucas Hnath (A Doll’s House, Part 2) and Lynn Nottage (Sweat) are all good/very good works by top-notch playwrights. But none of them were as pioneering, none moved the art form forward the way Angels did, and does. (The two American plays nominated for Best Play this year: John Leguizamo’s one-man show; Junk, an attempt at a large-canvas work, which after a bland reception, closed months ago.)
While Angels’ text has political posturing and pontificating to spare, exemplified in the long arguments between Louis and caregiver Belize in Part I, and Louis and Joe in Part II, and Perestroika does periodically fall into repetition and soap opera, the plot is so compelling: the parallel conflicts between the Mormon and gay couples, Prior’s physical/spiritual crisis, the inclusion of Roy Cohn. There are many enjoyably risky surprises: Cohn’s hospital interaction with Belize, the visit from Joe’s Mormon mother, the Messenger’s wrestling match with Prior, the Mormon diorama, Harper’s drug-addled fantasies; any flaws are ameliorated. Seeing it now, a discomfiting Jewish self-disdain seeps through. Louis’s cowardice and Cohn’s corruption seem symbols of the worldly skepticism and lack of faith in the hereafter that Jews brought to the New World, thwarting the suffering people on stage from finding redemption. But the larger theme of all human beings’ inability to break through the sheath of air and world-bound obtuseness to the perfection and grace of God, ultimately shines over any personal/cultural prejudice.
Kushner’s stage work since Angels has revolved around smaller, specialized pieces such as Slavs! and Homebody/Kabul, plays which only the most devout theater fans have seen. Caroline, or Change, for which he wrote the book and lyrics, on Broadway in 2004, was more widely produced, but the musical, a challenging 1960s story about a Jewish boy’s relationship with his African-American housekeeper, was something of an intriguing disappointment, notable mostly for the brilliant performance of lead Tonya Pinkins. Like many playwrights of the current era, Kushner has moved more dedicatedly into lucrative TV/film, writing the teleplay for HBO’s Angels and screenplays for Steven Spielberg—Munich, Lincoln, and an upcoming adaptation of West Side Story.
The revival of Angels in America is a bittersweet reminder of Kushner’s potential for greatness and his, and other US writers’ neglect of and migration from the theater as a primary art form. While America putters along, it is left to the British to carry the torch and bring Angels back in stupendous fashion—the U.K.’s unquenchable enthusiasm for innovation has been displayed this year in NYC in other productions, including the recently closed Yerma, and the hit Harry Potter and The Cursed Child. Artistic loss is not human loss. But culture is created by people, has intrinsic value, affects the experience and quality of our lives; art lasts longer than you or me. Tony Kushner, writer of the best American play of the last quarter century, runs the risk of being the Louis Ironson of our theater, abandoning a suffering art form when it needs him most, entrusting it to others to offer palliative care, and rejuvenation.
Scott Klavan, theatre writer at Escape Into Life, is an actor, director, and playwright in New York. Scott performed on Broadway in Irena’s Vow, with Tovah Feldshuh, in regional theater, and in numerous shows Off Broadway, including two productions of The Joy Luck Club for Pan Asian Rep. His stage adaption of Raymond Carver’s short story “Cathedral” was produced off-Broadway by Theater Breaking Through Barriers (TBTB), and his play Double Murder was published in Best American Short Plays of 2006-2007. For twenty years, Scott was Script and Story Analyst for the legendary actors Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward and for companies including HBO, Warner Bros. and Viacom. In 2015, he was featured in A Soldier’s Notes, an episode of the Web Series Small Miracles, alongside Judd Hirsch, and earned a nomination for Outstanding Actor in the LA Web Series Festival. He directed the one-woman show My Stubborn Tongue, written and performed by Anna Fishbeyn, off-Broadway at The New Ohio Theater and at the United Solo Festival. Scott directed and appeared in the solo play Canada Geese, by George Klas, in the 2016 New York International Fringe Festival. He is currently directing and developing the play One Moment, by Broadway producer James Fuld, Jr. Earlier in 2017, he directed and co-wrote with Del Fidanque Off-Line and directed Night Shadows by Lynda Crawford, in Emerging Artists Theatre’s (EAT) New Work Series. He is a Lifetime Member of The Actors Studio and a member of the Studio’s Playwright/Directors Workshop. He currently teaches at the 92nd St. Y and other arts organizations.