Location: Signature Theatre, 555 West 42nd Street, NY, NY
Website: Official Signature Theatre site
Starring: Christian Borle, Bill Heck, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Kazan, Billy Porter, Robin Weigert, Robin Bartlett, Frank Wood
My Review: To celebrate its 20th anniversary, the Signature Theatre is making its 2010-2011 season all Tony Kushner, all the time. To kick things off, they’re offering both parts of his groundbreaking play, Angels in America (Millennium Approaches and Perestroika), in repertory, with tickets going for just $20 for a limited time. Knowing these would be hot tickets to get, I made sure I was on the Signature Theatre website at the exact time tickets became available. Then their website crashed. So I called the box office. And had to wait nearly an hour until I got a representative on the line. Apparently theater geeks from near and far were also anticipating the $20 tickets for this landmark play going quickly. And quickly they did go, as by the time I was in touch with the box office, my only options were to see the two plays out of order or pay full price to see them later in the run. Luckily, having studied Millennium Approaches in school and being familiar with the HBO miniseries, I felt versed well enough with the first half to happily purchase my out-of-order tickets. So now knowing how it all ends, I can’t wait until early December to see how it begins.
Angels in America is a play that’s easy to have an opinion and feelings about, but difficult to write about, mainly because there is just so much going on. Each half runs over three hours and there are so many overlapping and interconnecting character arcs that keeping up with the performance while it’s going on is a feat unto itself.; processing it all afterward is like going through therapy. At its bare basics, Angels in America is a story about homosexuality and the AIDS crisis in the late 1980s. Prior and Louis are a generally happy gay couple living in Manhattan, until Prior is diagnosed as HIV-positive, which—during this time—is basically a death sentence. Louis begins to doubt if he’s strong enough to stand by his partner during his upcoming health battle, but agonizes over what sort of man he would be if he left.
Joe and his wife Harper are new Manhattan transplants, having just arrived from Salt Lake City for Joe’s legal career. Being Mormons, they “don’t believe in homosexuals,” which is problematic because Joe is one, the knowledge of which causes the already fragile and Valium-addicted Harper to retreat into a fantasy world she creates for herself. Joe and Louis find each other, leaving Prior sick and angry with the occasional visits from his friend and nurse (and former lover) Belize as his only comfort, and Harper spiraling into delusional madness. Joe’s mother, Hannah, arrives in town to see what’s going on with her son (and take care of her not-so-quietly-going-mad daughter-in-law), and eventually befriends the jilted Prior.
In case this isn’t enough to keep straight, there’s also the infamous New York lawyer Roy Cohn (best known for his work on the McCarthy investigations and playing a big part in the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg). Having lived his life as a closeted homosexual, Roy is now dying a slow and agonizing AIDS-related death, which he uses all his legal and political clout to make sure is referred to as “liver cancer” in the press. And then there’s that angel that literally crashes through Prior’s bedroom ceiling and tries to convince him that he’s a prophet.
To try to delve into every social, political, religious, historical, and emotional theme touched upon in Angels in America would take forever (grad students have written entire dissertations on these plays). So instead, I’ll just comment on the merits and detriments of this particular production.
While the production is uneven overall, it’s still highly enjoyable and emotionally affecting. One of the more impressive elements is how well the small stage space is utilized. The Signature Theatre isn’t large by any means, and there are multiple scenes that need to be changed and moved around quickly (Louis’s apartment, Roy’s hospital room, the Mormon Visitor’s Center, on the beach, etc). The set designers make all of this work by using pieces constructed on 90-degree angles that can easily be spun around to reveal different settings. For scenes requiring fewer props, a white scrim is pulled in front of the stage where various projections are cast to show both the streets of Manhattan and the fires of Hell.
The cast is where most of the show’s few pitfalls come from. Christian Borle is a standout as Prior, as he manages to convey the fragility that comes with his disease, but is still powerful enough to embrace all the hurt and anger he feels towards Louis. It’s also commendable how the wardrobe and makeup team manage to make him look so sickly for the entire 3+ hours; I’m curious to see how he looks in Millennium Approaches, where he starts out healthy. Zachary Quinto as Louis is probably the most notable actor in the cast, having spent several seasons at the villain on TV’s Heroes, but he doesn’t have much to do here. His role is much larger in the first play, so I’ll save any opinions on his performance until I see more of it. Zoe Kazan as pill-popping Harper is a bit of a confusion, as I’m not sure if she’s playing her as damaged and childlike, angry and self-medicating, manic depressive, or just all-around bonkers, because she samples each of these performances at least once.
Also coming up a bit short is Billy Porter as the sassy nurse Belize (and as Harper’s occasional imaginary friend, Mr. Lies). He’s already up against a stacked deck, taking on the role that the phenomenal Jeffrey Wright originated and won a Tony Award for in 1994 (and played again in the HBO miniseries). But rather than rising to the challenge and making the role his own, Porter seems to be imitating what worked so well for Wright, but with only a fraction of the energy and sincerity, making Belize feel like a weak impression of a stereotypical drag queen. Frank Wood, however (as Roy Cohn), manages to take a character that is so blissfully despicable and manipulative that it would be easy to turn him into a moustache-twirling cartoon villain, and actually turn him into a real person. A real person you still hate, but a real person nonetheless.
There’s no denying that some of the subject matter in Angels in America feels dated today. AIDS is no longer the instant death threat it used to be and the gay community isn’t being rapidly wiped out by this mysterious plague. But it does still exist, as do the many stories that Angels tells. It’s like one part period piece, and one part timeless drama about the human condition. And luckily, for those of us who were too young to enjoy it the first time around, it’s shedding light on an era we weren’t around for and reaffirming some of what we’re all living with at any given time.
Bottom Line: Angels in America is an ensemble production, with the stronger performances helping to elevate the weaker ones, thus creating a relatively harmonious theater experience. At over three hours long (over six for both parts) and an abundance of subtexts, it’s not for the casual theater fan, but meant for those who truly like drama in their drama. Both Angels in America and playwright Tony Kushner are institutes in American theater, and I consider myself lucky to be able to see a professionally staged production of this work. And I eagerly look forward to seeing the beginning in a few months.