It is customary for audiences to applaud a beloved star’s first appearance in a show, and the crowd at a recent preview of the revival of Angels in America did when Nathan Lane entered squawking as nefarious lawyer Roy Cohn. But it is rare to hear theater-goers whoop for the entrance of a character, as happened when Belize, the ex-drag-queen night nurse first sauntered into scene 5 of Part One, Millennium Approaches. (The British actor stylishly portraying Belize, Nathan Stewart-Jarrett, thus far little-known in this country, had been on stage earlier as the hallucinatory Mr. Lies.) A quarter-century after Angels’ Broadway debut, the New York homecoming of Tony Kushner’s eight indelible characters feels like a class reunion, or something akin to a comet’s return — but decidedly more fabulous.
Has it really been 25 years since Tony Kushner’s great opus was last on Broadway? It has. Then a seven-plus-hour, double-Tony-winning hot ticket, Angels is today in the canon. There are Spark Notes for it. One such study guide, anticipating its young readership, begins by explaining what AIDS is — or was: “Scientists discovered in 1984 that heterosexual sex could also transmit HIV,” it reads, “but AIDS remained a ‘gay plague’ in the popular imagination.”
How far we’ve come. “The world only spins forward,” notes Kushner’s modern-day prophet, Prior Walter (Andrew Garfield). Yet despite the march onward, Angels in America remains as relevant as ever, in part because it wrestles with timeless questions of good and evil, faith and loyalty, and what connects us to one another. In fact, in its near-total realization of some of modern theater’s greatest ambitions, it still towers over almost any stage event in its wake. Not incidentally, Angels also spins an intimate yarn: Prior’s boyfriend, Louis, walks out on him and takes up with another man, a Mormon Roy Cohn protégé still married to his wife who, left alone for long stretches, is having a serious relationship with Valium and is on chatting terms with her imaginary friends — as is Prior, with a demanding and lusty angel. Yes, it’s a thinker, but it’s funny and sexy, too.
This new production, a transplant from London’s National Theatre, should appeal to two audiences: Those who fell for the play’s humor and wonder the first time around (they are unlikely to be disappointed in director Marianne Elliott’s take), and those who come to the show with no history. As a member of the first group, I have some envy for those in the second. Because while there may be bragging rights in being able to compare the Angel then (looking as if she flew off a Roman edifice) with the Angel now (more wild, broken-down and bird-like), the play’s text and imagery deliver an ecstatic jolt the first time you see it.
This show may mean something different to millennials who have grown up specifying their preferred gender pronouns, seeing the legalization of same-sex marriage, and for whom the awful early years of the AIDS crisis are as historical as McCarthyism. A little refresher on that might also be in order: Roy Cohn was chief counsel to Sen. Joseph McCarthy, whom he helped to destroy the careers and lives of Americans targeted as communist or homosexual; he was also the prosecutor in the 1953 trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, executed after being found guilty of spying for Russia. Oh, Ethel turns up here too; she’s a hoot. (The actress is Susan Brown who, like much of the cast, takes on several roles of varying genders, ages, and states of mortality.)
The fictional Cohn is, as his real-life inspiration was, a closeted gay man with AIDS who insists he has liver cancer. He spends his final days mentoring and bullying an ambitious young law clerk, Joe Pitt (Halt and Catch Fire’s Lee Pace, a charismatic addition to the Broadway cast). Cohn fetishizes loyalty and power, insists he is not a racist while showing otherwise, and is, in the words of another character, “the polestar of human evil.” If his talk about planting Republican judges like “landmines” or his boasts that “Half the time I just make it up, and it still turns out to be true!” sound familiar, that is no accident: The real-life Cohn was a mentor to, among others, the current occupant of the White House. When the fictional Cohn brags that “I have forced my way into history. I ain’t never gonna die,” it is newly credible and chilling in the Trump age.
Brought forth via Nathan Lane’s sad-clown face, more often deployed to play put-upon schlubs, Kushner’s Cohn is a literary villain you’ll hate yourself for loving. No surprise that Lane, a two-time Tony-winner for comedies (including The Producers) puts over the humor. But his Cohn is as scary and scheming as Iago, even while tethered to a landline and an IV drip. And if you know Andrew Garfield only from The Amazing Spider-Man or The Social Network, he is no less transformed and thrilling as the ailing Angel-whisperer, Prior Walter. He embraces Prior’s effeminate gestures, his penchant for drag, his habit of quoting The Wizard of Oz. They don’t write them like Prior anymore —even Belize comments that, “all this girl-talk s— is politically incorrect, you know,” to which Prior counters, “I’m sick, I get to be politically incorrect if it makes me feel better.” Denise Gough, as pill-popping Harper Pitt, goes beyond the woman-on-the-verge-of-a-nervous-breakdown of past interpretations; even her costumes suggest hospital patient garb. She fights to be proactive in a role that can tip toward victimhood. Scottish actor James McArdle ably handles the New York accent and political soliloquies of neurotic (and very verbose) Louis. Still he can be upstaged by an eye roll from Stewart-Jarret’s devastating Belize; it’s a little unfair, but a lot of fun to watch.
Elliott, a Tony winner for War Horse and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, brings out the text’s dreamier aspects, blurring an unreal reality and what may be the work of pills or fever. Her New York is a city of ghosts: The sets, outlined in ‘80s neon, suggest the era in a few strokes. A simple prop of a Greek-diner coffee cup recalls a landscape before Starbucks, while a call from an (unseen) Central Park pay phone can put you in a time before texting. It was a less enlightened era, but it had its charms.
More people have seen Mike Nichols’ wonderful 2003 HBO miniseries version than will see this limited run. But Angels is, in its heart, a live theatrical experience. Elliott honors that, without being beholden to what was staged before. She gives the Angel a superhumanness by employing seven performers to bring her to life: The actress Amanda Lawrence’s body and, separately her massive feathered wings, are flown about the stage — as a parent might airplane a toddler — by six people credited as “Angel Shadows.” Her spectacular entrance, more familiarly done with a flight harness, now is achieved by treating Lawrence as a feral got-no-strings puppet, a trick both fresh and effective. Elliott dials up the theater-is-magic vibe in Part Two, Perestroika, in which the turntable scene changes used in Part One are replaced with the old-school technique of a black-garbed crew (in this case, the Angel Shadows) moving the scenery.
A couple small quibbles: Several of the show’s many two-person confrontations are pitched high throughout — there’s an awful lot of sustained shouting. And the music cues can be intrusively loud; is someone in the sound booth worried about play-goers falling asleep by hour six? They needn’t be.
Finally, a logistical note: Audiences have the choice of seeing the play’s two parts on the same or separate days. The Pulitzer-prize winning first half, Millennium Approaches, remains unchanged since the 1990s, and can nearly stand alone. Perestroika is the shaggier twin, despite being tightened in revision (the script was last updated by Kushner in 2013). I recommend the one-day binge-watch. (I tested it on a 15-year-old, who was thoroughly entertained. Plus, there are four intermissions and a dinner break.) And, really, the time — the 25 years, the seven-and-a-half-hours — just flies. When Angels in America first hit the New York stage, the Reagan-Bush years were giving way to two terms of Bill Clinton, and widespread use of life-extending antiretroviral drugs was around the corner. Angels’ ultimately hopeful outlook seemed prescient then. And today? This renewed reminder that the world will spin forward also through these troubled times feels especially welcome. A