Theater review: 'Angels in America' at the Signature Theatre Company
“Angels in America,” Tony Kushner’s grand epic now in revival off-Broadway at the Signature Theatre Company, is one of the most coveted tickets of the fall season in New York, suggesting a hunger in these lean times for substantive ideas and sizable emotional payoffs. But in keeping with our recessionary thrift, the production, directed by Michael Greif, treats this seven-hour, two-part marathon in a stripped-down fashion, never letting us forget that, for all the work's Wagnerian scope, "Angels" proceeds as a series of highly intimate dramatic moments.
Gone is the continuous fizz of George C. Wolfe’s Broadway staging, with its zingy comic line readings and gushing underscoring. The brash intellectual swashbuckling has been replaced by ardent political conversation conducted in almost whispered tones. Even the special effects have a handmade quality, the magic visibly manipulated by stagehands, who maneuver the minimal set pieces and slide a white hospital curtain that doubles as a screen for cityscape projections.
After the HBO version of “Angels,” directed by Mike Nichols and frontloaded with A-list talent, it’s understandable why Greif would opt for a less sensational approach. Success in this mode, however, depends on the ability of the performers to supply the missing wattage, and Greif’s ensemble is only intermittently able to sustain the necessary power.
The tragic stakes are raised early in “Millennium Approaches,” the dramatically tidier first half of Kushner's magnum opus, when Louis’ lover, Prior (Christian Borle), reveals that he has AIDS, setting in motion a crisis not only in health but in love and responsibility. Unable to confront illness and mortality, Louis walks out on Prior and starts having an affair with Joe (Bill Heck), a closeted homosexual right-wing Mormon lawyer, who’s married to Harper (Zoe Kazan), a Valium-addicted lost soul. This neglected wife is as abandoned as Prior, and the heartbroken stragglers encounter each other in anguished fever dreams and lonely hallucinations as their significant others forget their cares and woes in bed together.
Set in the second term of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, “Angels” takes a reading of the zeitgeist and finds that self-interest has run amok for liberals and conservatives alike. (Just one of many reasons this politically provocative work is still so timely.) Joe, a protégé of Roy Cohn (Frank Wood), a fictionalized portrait of Sen. Joseph McCarthy's one-time legal henchman, represents everything Louis loathes and incessantly rails about. But sexual attraction doesn’t always conform to party affiliation, and in any case these lovers are fugitives from themselves, groping for escape in an America that encourages an every-man-for-himself mentality.
Greif elicits unflashy performances from his actors. (Heck is so adept at portraying a good-looking mild-mannered phony that he almost disappears in a wash of beige.) The casting keeps us especially mindful of the relative youthfulness of the characters. Louis and Prior are in their early 30s, and you can feel just how overwhelmed they are by their fate. Death isn’t supposed to arrive so soon. Kazan's Harper seems especially young and unformed, which makes sense given her predicament but deprives the role of some of its emotional heft. (This Harper simply needs to grow up, and she seems to have more than enough time to do so.)
Throughout my two-night immersion in this modern classic, I keep thinking to myself, “This isn’t your father’s ‘Angels’!”— a strange thing coming from someone whose father never had the slightest interest in the play. But the production is definitely pitched to the next generation. When I first saw the work on Broadway, I was younger than Prior and Louis. Now older than they are, I wonder how their peers in the audience relate to their story and to the ongoing pandemic that has become an afterthought for many in the affluent, pharmaceuticalized world.
The revival doesn’t have the same millennial urgency of the original Broadway staging or even the retrospective brooding of the Nichols miniseries. The scenes unfold modestly on the cramped Peter Norton Space stage, inviting us into a proximity that doesn’t always flatter the actors, some of whom seem to be choking on mouthfuls of Kushner’s cumbersome language. At times, their interactions seem more acted than lived. There are searing moments, but I sensed a remove between imagination and experience.
Two supporting actors juggling multiple roles deserve special acknowledgement. Billy Porter, agile in the role of Mr. Lies, Harper’s drug-induced tour guide, is wholly convincing as Belize, the sassy nurse who challenges Louis’ self-honesty. And Robin Bartlett, who makes a striking impression as the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, the woman Roy Cohn tirelessly sought to have executed for treason, is breathtakingly good as Hannah, Joe’s formidable mother who storms Brooklyn on a mission to save her son and ends up freeing herself from a suffocating, uncompassionate morality.
Wood resists the tour-de-force temptations inherent in playing Roy Cohn. His naturalism is spot on, but the character is no longer very thrilling theatrical company. This is obviously a choice worked out between Greif and Kushner, who has revised “Perestroika,” the second and more unwieldy half of “Angels,” to prevent Roy from having a final laugh. The devil no longer steals the show, although his AIDS death haunts and chills, especially when Louis (with help from Ethel Rosenberg) says Kaddish over his unrepentant corpse.
Although Robin Weigert is faultless as the angel, the scenes in heaven are lackluster. The narrow playing area doesn’t leave enough room for the irrational to seem even remotely believable in the way dreams can after we’ve awakened. The lighting by Ben Stanton, projections by Wendall K. Harrington and sound design by Ken Travis create a gorgeously apocalyptic atmosphere on Mark Wendland’s set. But not even Dorothy would have fallen for this Oz.
For anyone lucky enough to have experienced Stephen Spinella’s Prior, all subsequent Priors are doomed to be a faded copy. (Spinella originated the role at San Francisco’s Eureka Theatre and performed it on Broadway as well as at the Mark Taper Forum.) Borle’s characterization grows in pathos and dignity as the play reaches its climax, but the ending doesn’t quite realize its cathartic potential.
Not that the sight of Prior, haggard and hobbled in Central Park, a survivor fighting for the blessing of “more life,” doesn’t draw out the hankies. But it’s Quinto’s complicated Louis, a guy who fails abominably in love but can’t stop loving, who shifted the focus of my grief.
— Charles McNulty
Photos: Top: Billy Porter, Robin Weigert and Christian Borle. Credit: Richard Termine. Bottom: Zachary Quinto and Borle. Credit: Joan Marcus.