Theater review by Adam Feldman
“The world only spins forward,” declares the defiant prophet Prior Walter in Angels in America. But as the world turns, it returns things to our shifting fields of vision. So it is with Tony Kushner’s expansive and shattering masterpiece, which is back on Broadway for the first time since its 1993 premiere, in a production of magnificent tenderness and sinew. Heaven, such as it is, be praised! Angels in America has arrived again. The great work continues.
Kushner’s two-part play is massive: To see it in a single day, with multiple intermissions and a long dinner break, takes 10 hours. Yet every moment is so rich, so rewarding, so engrossing that it flies by in a rush. It is hard to do justice to the multitudes that Angels in America contains: its synthesis of the intellectual and the lyrical, the comic and the tragic, the intimate and the epic, the engaged and the transcendent. This is a play that breaks and fills your heart; it inspires you as it takes your breath away.
The first half, Millennium Approaches, starts in 1985. Prior (Andrew Garfield, raw nerves exposed) has AIDS, which sends his panicked boyfriend, Louis (the excellent James McArdle), into pretzel twists of conscience. Meanwhile, the odious right-wing attack dog Roy Cohn (played with relish and bite by Nathan Lane) labors to hide his own AIDS diagnosis from the world—including his protégé, the closeted gay Mormon lawyer Joe (Lee Pace, magnetically tense with repression), who struggles to stay true to his Valium-addled wife, Harper (a surprising, angular Denise Gough).
These fault lines build to an earthquake in the second half, Perestroika, which—true to the play’s subtitle, A Gay Fantasia on National Themes—takes a radical turn into overtly metatheatrical and fantastical realms. Director Marianne Elliott, helming this import of her 2017 production at London’s National Theatre (with the same cast of eight, except Pace), cannily simplifies the staging as the text grows more baroque; the spinning turntables and neon zigzags of Ian MacNeil’s set yield to squarer, more open forms. This helps make space for the dazzling spectacle at the core of the show: the Angel who visits Prior, beckoning him to deliver her message, but who later reveals herself to be a kind of fearful dinosaur. (A phalanx of puppeteers holds up her battered wings.)
As Prior wrestles with his reactionary visitor, so does the audience, emboldened by Kushner to engage with America in all its broken promise. Does Angels in America still speak to us now? Yes, it does. And, as always, it also speaks past us, touching mystic chords of memory as it soars into the dark.
Neil Simon Theatre (Broadway). By Tony Kushner. Directed by Marianne Elliott. With Andrew Garfield, Nathan Lane, James McArdle, Denise Gough, Lee Pace. Running times: Millennium Approaches: 3hrs 30 mins; two intermissions. Perestroika: 3hrs 45mins; two intermissions.
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