Probably the most praised theatrical work of the last couple of decades, Tony Kushner’s two-part epic looked both forward and backward when it made its Broadway debut in 1993. The play itself was set in the mid-1980s, as the AIDS crisis began to break through to mainstream consciousness while Republican operatives worked to make the Reagan majority permanent. The production, on the other hand, represented to some a new vision for Broadway, a vast, provocative reimagining of political drama as well as a frank depiction of the gay experience; one critic described it as “nudging Broadway into the 21st century.” Simply going to see Angels, one could argue, was a political act.
Seeing Angels again 19 years later is a somewhat different experience, but not necessarily a less thrilling one. The play remains an impressive, ambitious synthesis of the ideas of the ’80s, but the relative normalization of the gay-rights movement and the changes in the spread of AIDS allow some of Kushner’s other big themes about the personal nature of history, me-first politics and our callous attitude toward the environment, for instance, to feel more widely relatable. The struggles of AIDS-stricken Prior Walter (Rob Lindley) and a fictive version of vile right-wing operative Roy Cohn (Larry Yando) acquire a broader resonance amid the election-year debate over Obamacare. “The worst thing about being sick in America,” Cohn says, “is you are booted out of the parade.”
That Court artistic director Charles Newell’s production employs a number of actors known for musical theater—Lindley, Yando, Hollis Resnik, Geoff Packard as closeted Mormon lawyer Joe Pitt and Heidi Kettenring as his pill-popping, emotionally stunted wife, Harper—feels appropriate. Kushner’s play shares the musical genre’s sense of grandiosity. When these characters can’t express themselves in simple words, they break not into song but into cresting monologues or carefully orchestrated split scenes.
While all of the revival’s eight actors acquit themselves admirably—with the forceful Yando and stunning, defiant Lindley standing out—Newell’s production doesn’t always hit the right notes. In Kushner’s more fantastical scenes, Newell doesn’t go far enough; Part Two’s visit to the angelic Council of the Continental Principalities is played with a plodding solemnity that misses the playwright’s humor.
Still, Court’s production mostly does justice to Kushner’s intelligent vision. The central image of John Culbert’s set is a slab that often serves as a bed, whether conjugal or hospital, but also brings to mind a mausoleum—a range of disparate duties that seems right. This revival marks Kushner’s accomplishment as a monument, but by no means a museum piece.
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