by Michael Bracken
Angels in America, Tony Kushner’s sprawling, magnificent epic about a time when an AIDS diagnosis was a death sentence, is back on Broadway. Britain’s National Theatre production, directed by Marianne Elliot (War Horse, Curious Incident of the Dog…), has arrived from its London run. And despite the advances that have been made in treating AIDS, Kushner’s opus seems as timely and relevant as it did twenty-five years ago.
Angels consists of two parts, “Millennium Approaches” and “Perestroika,” each around four hours long, and each flying by far quicker than many a ninety-minute trifle. Set in 1985-1986 (with a 1990 epilogue), it’s subtitled A Gay Fantasia on National Themes and effortlessly juxtaposes fancy with realism. Rife with characters whose lives and story lines intersect, its vivid depiction of those characters pulls you into its multi-level plot with irresistible force.
Dead center is Prior Walter (Andrew Garfield of The Amazing Spider-Man fame), a thirtyish gay man who tells his live-in lover, Louis (James McArdle), that he has AIDS. A funhouse mirror image of Prior and Louis (distorted but not much fun) is provided by Joseph (Lee Pace) and Harper (Denise Gough), two Mormon transplants from Utah, living in Brooklyn. Each relationship has a defining debacle. Different in detail, they’re equally devastating in their destructive potential.
Harper is addicted to valium and Joe to long walks, during which he presumably picks up young men for anonymous sex. They try in vain to keep the fissures in their relationship at bay. He’s gay and she knows it. But they don’t, won’t, can’t talk about it, until they absolutely must.
Meanwhile Louis simply cannot handle Prior’s disease. He tries, or at least goes through the motions of trying, but to no avail. He abandons his boyfriend when his boyfriend needs him most. He knows it’s wrong, but he can’t stop himself. He ends up with Joe, at least for a while.
Prior has vivid dreams – or are they skewed reality? Angels feature prominently. Parker has dreams as well, but no angels.
Other characters join the fray through a variety of connections. For reasons not entirely clear, Joe is a protégé of Roy Cohn (a spectacularly venomous Nathan Lane), now in private practice after gaining notoriety on witch hunts for communists and spies. Cohn is dying of AIDS, which he claims is liver cancer. His nurse is Belize (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett), a close friend of Prior’s. Joe’s mother (Susan Brown) flies in from Salt Lake and somehow connects with Prior.
It’s a tribute to Kushner’s writing that all these unlikely pairings seem completely natural. Elliott also gets credit for the uneasy yet unobtrusive marriage of the mundane and the phenomenal. Her direction is sure and steady with a few minor exceptions, one being her failure to fully exploit the parallels in the conflicts of Harper -Joe and Prior-Louis.
Her choice of having six “Angel Shadows” support the wings of the Angel who appears at the end of “Millennium Approaches” and later in “Perestroika” is questionable. It’s a fantasy, so anything goes, but it seems affected, and the other angels who appear in Perestroika have more manageable accoutrements.
Elliott has certainly managed to get extraordinary performances from her fine cast. Garfield is amazing as Prior, combining myriad strands of fear, pain, disillusionment, courage, and vulnerability into a unified whole. Pace clearly connects with Joe’s anguish, tinged with selfishness. Gough’s choice to play down physical evidence of Harper’s valium addiction works well, and Stewart-Jarrett’s sass as Belize is palpable but not overdone. Lane is fearless as Cohn, holding nothing back. Brown as Mrs. Pitt and McArdle as Louis are pitch perfect.
Elliott’s design team is a study in restraint. Ian MacNeil’s spare sets leave little doubt as to where we are yet never tell us more than they have to. Nicky Gillibrand’s clothes are perfect eighties without calling attention to themselves. Paule Constable’s lighting is fittingly somber.
What’s so striking about Angels in America is the richness of its story and the depth of its characters. What’s so frightening is that it still speaks to us in real time. It remains a gay fantasia on national themes. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Photos:Brinkhoff & Mögenburg
Through July 1st at the Neil Simon Theatre (250 West 52nd Street). http://www.angelsbroadway.com/ .
Each show four hours with two intermissions – thru July 15