“There Are Devils There, Too”
As of March 31, the Show.Score.com website, which aggregates online reviews, was showing 50 critics’ reviews and 266 members’ (regular theatregoers) responses to the current revival of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes. The show’s unusually high aggregate scores—an 89 average from the critics and a 91 from the members—testify to the show’s overwhelmingly positive reception.
|Amanda Lawrence, Andrew Garfield. Photo: Brinkhoff and Mogenburg.|
|Nathan Lane. Photo: Brinkhoff and Mogenburg.|
Angels in America, which originally appeared on Broadway in 1992, is now at the Neil Simon Theatre after its lavishly lauded production at London’s National Theatre. Directed by Marianne Elliott (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night) and starring Nathan Lane as Roy Cohn and Andrew Garfield as Prior Walter, the show, which maintains its British supporting cast, has been earning roaring ovations and will likely garner multiple awards. Most serious theatregoers would agree it’s a must-see event.
|Lee Pace, Andrew Garfield, Nathan Lane. Photo: Brinkhoff and Mogenburg.|
Angels in America, which mixes realism with fantasy, fact with fiction, is undeniably epochal in its ambition, thematic significance, humor, theatricality, historical viewpoints, political commentary, and combination of searing rhetoric and crawling profanity. And yet it sometimes seems less than the sum of its parts.
|James McArdle, Nathan Stewart-Jarrett. Photo: Brinkhoff and Mogenburg.|
Marianne Elliot’s production is, by and large, excellent, but doesn’t strike me as any more exceptional or groundbreaking than the original. Ian McNeill’s set follows Kushner’s desire for a simple, Brechtian design that allows the play’s episodic structure to move rapidly from scene to scene, Paule Constable’s lighting makes the most of its many atmospheric opportunities, and Nicky Gillibrand’s costumes are period-and-character appropriate; where flair is needed, she supplies it.
|James McArdle, Andrew Garfield. Photo: Brinkhoff and Mogenburg.|
The most unusual concept is having the play’s famous Angel (Amanda Lawrence), with her huge, spreading wings, performed as a living puppet handled by a team of Angel Shadows under Finn Caldwell’s direction.
|James McArdle, Lee Pace. Photo: Brinkhoff and Mogenburg.|
Overall, the performances are of the same high quality as the originals, neither superior nor inferior to them. Lane’s furiously angry Roy Cohn, for example, is just as furiously angry (and bitingly funny) as was Ron Leibman’s, and Garfield’s Prior Walter every bit as painfully sensitive and affecting as was Stephen Spinella’s.
|Denise Gough, Nathan Stewart-Jarrett. Photo: Brinkhoff and Mogenburg.|
On the other hand, James McArdle is so whiningly high-strung as Louis, who abandons Prior, his ailing lover, that it wears on one’s nerves, as does his and his costars’ frequent shouting. Thankfully, Nathan Stewart-Jarrett as Belize, the drag queen cum nurse, makes this flamboyant, wise, and wisecracking gay friend, a type we’ve seen in many plays and films, a coolly satisfying presence.
|Andrew Garfield, Nathan Stewart-Jarrett. Photo: Brinkhoff and Mogenburg.|
As per Kushner’s wishes, most actors play two or more roles, including women playing men. Given the need this creates for us to suspend our disbelief even more than usual, it doesn’t work in every instance. The terrific Susan Brown, for instance, makes striking shifts from Joe’s mother, Hannah, and the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, to Joe’s male doctor and an elderly Bolshevik. But when the slender Denise Gough, very good as Joe’s wife, Harper, covers Washington insider Martin Heller, she can’t help making us think of Katherine McKinnon doing Jeff Sessions.
|Nathan Lane, Susan Brown. Photo: Brinkhoff and Mogenburg.|
The play, whose explosive revelations about the outbreak of the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s were once blindingly revelatory, now seems a bit dated. At the same time, its up-to-the-neck immersion in the time of its creation makes its depiction of the conflict between liberal and conservative politics, particularly with regard to the presidency of Ronald Reagan, surprisingly topical.
|\Nathan Lane, Nathan Stewart-Jarrett. Photo: Brinkhoff and Mogenburg.|
Whereas AIDS, horrible as it is, is now considered manageable, the divisiveness of Reagan’s presence haunts us in triple strength during our current administration. Every anti-Reagan comment seems to be a stink bomb designed to attack Donald Trump (and his family), sometimes earning applause. It’s interesting to note how a play concerned with whether mankind should slow down or move forward reminds us of medical advances while also making us aware of political stasis.
|Lee Pace. Photo: Brinkhoff and Mogenburg.|
Then there’s the problem of Joe Pitt (Lee Pace, all 6’5” of him), the straight-arrow Mormon law clerk whose marriage to the anxiety ridden, Valium-popping Harper (Denise Gough) is in trouble because of his homosexuality. Roy Cohn, Joe’s right-wing mentor, is a vicious creep who would sooner ruin his doctor’s career than admit he’s gay, much less that he’s got AIDS. Nonetheless, we’re supposed to believe that gay Republican Joe, a man of ethical integrity, worships the ground Cohn walks on, regardless of how openly Cohn expresses his worst inclinations. There’s an irony here but it’s not a convincing one.
|Susan Brown. Photo: Brinkhoff and Mogenburg.|
Various other obstacles to full appreciation niggle as well (like the overpowering bursts of Adrian Sutton's melodramatic music) but none more so than the show’s excessive length, which must unravel multiple plot lines before the final curtain: the Prior-Louis relationship; the conflict between Prior and the Angel(s); the story of Joe, his wife, and his mother; the Joe-Louis affair; the link between Joe and Roy; the Roy and Ethel episodes; Hannah and Prior’s connection; Belize’s involvement in all as both compassionate participant and witness, and so on.
|Denise Hough. Photo: Brinkhoff and Mogenburg.|
Often, the writing seems padded to give everyone more acting time. Is the scene when Joe’s mother gets lost looking for Brooklyn that essential? Until stadium-type seating is installed, a Broadway theatre simply isn’t as comfortable a place to binge-watch as one’s living or bedroom.
|Denish Hough, Lee Pace. Photo: Brinkhoff and Mogenburg.|
“Millennium Approaches” ends with the Angel saying, as she hovers over the suffering Prior, “The great work begins,” a reflection of Heaven’s conservative wish for mankind to resist change and progress. Prior himself, his condition having stabilized, speaks the words at the conclusion of “Perestroika,” set in 1990, suggesting this prophetic character’s progressive take on the future. The 2018 audience in Trump’s America is left to ponder the prescience of that prophecy.
|James McArdle, Susan Brown, Nathan Stewart-Jarrett, Andrew Garfield. Photo: Brinkhoff and Mogenburg.|
A minority may also ponder if Angels in America is as great a work as everybody seems to think it is.
Neil Simon Theatre
250 W. 52nd St., NYC
Through August 1