The National Theatre production of Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes,” will open at Broadway’s Neil Simon Theater this Sunday, March 25, 2018, touted as the play’s first Broadway revival since its initial 1993-1994 Broadway run. This is true, but not the whole story. There have been a couple of relatively recent New York productions — including one at BAM directed by Ivo van Hove in 2014, and one by the Signature Theater in 2010 that I reviewed on October 31, 2010. I reprint the 2010 review below:
Early on in the first New York revival of “Angels in America,” the most praised American play of the last 20 years, Louis (Zachary Quinto) is talking to Prior (Christian Borle), the boyfriend with AIDS whom he will later abandon, about the differing views Jews and Christians have about the afterlife. “Well for us, it’s not the verdict that counts…” Louis says. “[I]t should be the questions and shape of a life, its total complexity gathered, arranged and considered, which matters at the end, not some stamp of salvation or damnation…”
“I like this; very zen,” Prior replies. “It’s reassuringly incomprehensible and useless.”
The passage is in some ways typical of Tony Kushner’s two-part, seven-hour play, subtitled “A Gay Fantasia on National Themes”: It punctures to comic effect its characters’ (or its own) pretensions – I prefer to call them intellectual aspirations – yet at the same time gives free reign to them.
Louis’s comments also had resonance for me in assessing the Signature Theater Company’s uneven but must-see production of “Angels in America.” A verdict seems besides the point for an experience — striking, thought-provoking, witty, exhausting, sad, powerful, prolonged, gripping, baffling, upsetting, uplifting – that probably could not have helped but both to thrill and disappoint, and that I could not possibly have missed.
It is useful to keep in mind that “Angels in America” is set mostly in 1985 to 1986, written just a few years later at a time when the public at large considered AIDS a death sentence, and produced on Broadway from 1993 to 1994 when mainstream theatergoers were not used to seeing gay characters depicted as fully complex human beings.
The play essentially tells three stories: There is the relationship between Louis and Prior, who, after Louis leaves him, begins to experience visitations from his ancestors, and from an angel who tells him he’s a prophet.
Their story has many parallels with another couple, this one Mormons who have moved to New York: Harper Pitt (Zoe Kazan) is the emotionally maladjusted wife of Joe Pitt (Bill Heck), a conservative Republican law clerk who over the course of the play reveals to himself and to the audience that he is homosexual.
Then there is the story of Roy Cohn (Frank Wood), the real-life closeted aide to Joseph McCarthy during the red “witch hunts” of the 1950’s who became an unscrupulous lawyer and power broker in New York and who died of AIDS.
These stories become intertwined with one another in a Dickens-like series of coincidences, and also in deeply inventive ways: Prior and Harper (he abandoned by Louis, she abandoned by Joe) first meet each other in their respective hallucinations.
None of the tales seem stale, the insight Kushner offers into human nature buttressing an engrossing drama that exists side by side with theatrical spectacle, as well as spiritual wondering and wandering, philosophical musing, political debate, cultural debate, even animal debate: There is a hilarious argument over whether dogs or cats make better pets.
Humor is also used to leaven the cosmological speculation, which can sometimes drag. When the angel demands that Prior retrieve the “Sacred Implements,” he replies: Rip up the kitchen floor? “No way, I’ll lose my lease.” There are many exchanges that add to the richness of the play.
For all the leavening, it takes a lot to absorb such richness. (I saw it in one day, from 2 p.m. to midnight with a long dinner break, and think now I should have seen “Part 1: Millennium Approaches” and “Part 2: Perestroika” — which have separate admissions — on two different days.) It was inspired for HBO to offer up the work as a mini-series in 2003 (now available on DVD), with a cast that included Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, Mary-Louise Parker, Jeffrey Wright, who also appeared in the original Broadway cast.
Those who saw either the HBO film or the Broadway production may have difficulty in adjusting to some of the performances by the Signature’s eight-member cast, especially those actors tasked with multiple roles (as many as four apiece). Director Michael Greif seems generally to have preferred a lower key, which may be more realistic but is also less entertaining. Still, Zachary Quinto, best-known for playing Sylar on “Heroes” and Spock in a recent “Star Trek,” is here making an impressive New York theatrical debut, and there is one actor whose performance surpasses those of the previous inhabitants of his role: Bill Heck as Joe the Mormon. This will not surprise anybody who saw Heck play the central character in “Orphan’s Home Cycle,” Signature Theater Company’s theatrical marathon of last season. Like that production, Signature makes good use of the small stage at its intimate Peter Norton theater, with Mark Wendland’s efficient split-stage sets on two turn turntables (A comic highlight: the diorama at the Manhattan visitor’s center of Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints).
Of particular note is Wendall K. Harrington’s projection design, which takes us from Central Park to a barren beach to Antarctica to the South Bronx to the heavens to the rain-drenched streets of Manhattan in ways that did not exist when “Angels in America” was first presented. “Angels in America” is just the first of three productions of Tony Kushner plays, one of them new, during this season at Signature, long one of my favorite theater companies in New York. All of Kushner’s plays seem still to adhere to his first principles; the first theater company he helped form while still a student was entitled 3P Productions: The three p’s stood for politics, poetry and popcorn.
A Gay Fantasia on National Themes by Tony Kushner
Part 1: “Millennium Approaches”; Part 2: “Perestroika.” At the Peter Norton Space of the Signature Theater Company (555 West 42nd Street) Directed by Michael Greif Sets by MarkWendland; costumes by Clint Ramos;lighting by Ben Stanton; sound by Ken Travis; projections by Wendall K. Harrington; music by Michael Friedman and Chris Miller; hair and wig design byCharles G. LaPointe; dialect coach, Deborah Hecht; fight director, Rick Sordelet; aerial design by Paul Rubin; makeup by Cookie Jordan; Mallin, executive director. Cast: Robin Bartlett (Hannah Pitt),Christian Borle (Prior Walter), Bill Heck(Joe Pitt), Zoe Kazan (Harper Pitt), BillyPorter (Belize), Zachary Quinto (LouisIronson), Robin Weigert (the Angel) and Frank Wood (Roy Cohn). Running times, Part 1: 3hours; Part 2: 3 hours 40 minutes. Ticket prices: $20 through Dec 19; $85 after Dec 21; waitlist: $20. Scheduled to run through February 20, 2011