Review: Angels in America
Tony Kushner's 1990s epic returns to New York to amaze us again.
Fri Oct 29 2010
Photograph: Joan Marcus
DEFYING GRAVITY Weigert, center, flies to Borle, right.
Time Out Ratings :<strong>Rating: </strong>4/5
The Signature's revival of Tony Kushner's Angels in America is basically sold out, but you may have reasons for not wanting to try the waiting list. Perhaps you're daunted by the two-part epic's duration (seven hours) or its total price tag ($170), or you're not attracted to its various agendas (leftist, postmodern and gay). Or perhaps you simply don't like soap operas. That shouldn't stop you. Yes, Angels in America is very much a soap opera, dominated by two-person scenes and episodic relationship drama in its first part, Millennium Approaches. That it also unfolds thrillingly intellectual arias and surreal flights of mythopoetic fancy—particularly in the cosmic second play, Perestroika—doesn't diminish the fact that Kushner appropriated a populist form and infused it with an ecstatic, progressive vision that resonates and sings in the 21st century. Even in a compromised revival—and Michael Greif's chamber staging has its drawbacks—the awe-inspiring Angels stands the test of time.
How to summarize Kushner's baroque masterwork for the uninitiated? His architecture is breathtaking—even in the dawdling, overlong final stretch of Perestroika (all great works of art are flawed). Two couples orbit each other in 1980s New York, their relationships corrupted by lies, addiction and disease. First, there's the sham marriage between Reaganite Mormon Joe Pitt (wonderful Bill Heck) and his Valium-addled wife, Harper (shrill Zoe Kazan). Mirroring them are Prior Walter (Christian Borle) and Louis Ironson (Zachary Quinto), a gay couple over whom falls the shadow of AIDS. Prior finds a lesion on his arm, and soon Louis flees his sickly lover's bed—for the closeted Joe's arms.
Several bridge figures link these lost lovers. There's Joe's boss, the vicious attorney Roy Cohn (Frank Wood in full weasel mode), a reactionary creep who pulls the levers of power from the safety of his velvet-lined closet. Sassy, commonsensical nurse Belize (zesty Billy Porter) takes care of Prior and, later, the AIDS-ravaged Cohn. Last is Joe's repressed mother, Hannah (Robin Bartlett), who, against all expectations, turns out to be the good sort of Christian. And let's not forget the Angel (Robin Weigert) who visits Prior in his feverish frenzy. This celestial oracle comes bearing a message that, like the overall play, mingles audacious hope and desperate concern for humanity's will to self-destruction.
You can quibble with Greif's serviceable direction, the uneven casting, even Michael Friedman's tinkly scene-change music. And yes, Angels ought to be on Broadway in bigger, brasher form. But even in this cramped version, Kushner's great work still has the power to shock, enlighten and delight.
Signature Theatre Company. By Tony Kushner. Dir. Michael Greif. With ensemble cast. Millennium Approaches: 3hrs 15mins. Two intermissions. Perestroika: 3hrs 40mins. Two intermissions.