NTLive’s Angels in America: (Still) A Gay Fantasia on National Themes Both Past and Present
This play floods me with very strong memories and emotions. It was one of the first plays I saw when I moved to New York City. I had seen Part One: Millennium Approaches in 1993 when I was visiting from Los Angeles where I was living at the time it opened. But I saw Part Two: Perestroika when I finally moved to New York City in the spring of 1994. Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes was something quite beyond belief. The original cast included Ron Leibman, Stephen Spinella, Kathleen Chalfant, (the spectacular) Marcia Gay Harden, Jeffrey Wright, Ellen McLaughlin, David Marshall Grant and Joe Mantello. It was a play about AIDS and homosexuality in America that demanded to be heard and taken seriously. It was revolutionary, theatrical, and dramatic while also being entirely human. It forced itself inside you and stayed. Anyone who saw it on Broadway can instantly bring forth the memory of that magnificent Angel descending from the heavens. That particular image will forever be embedded in our collective mind, with no possibility of escape. And why would anyone want to?
“Listen to the world, to how fast it goes. That’s New York traffic, baby, that’s the sound of energy, the sound of time.”
My fellow theatre-junkie and I were a bit cautious when we arrived at BAM Rose Cinemas on the 20th of July. We were there to see the National Theatre Live’s screening of Part One of Angels in America, the acclaimed production currently on stage at the National in London. Would the medium be able to transport us back to New York City, circa 1985/86 and into the minds and hearts of all those strange and wonderful creatures? On stage, it is something to behold, but a staged show on a movie screen, I wasn’t so sure. The place this play was always meant to be seen and heard is the stage, with all strings and mechanicals showing.
On one very long Sunday in 2010 at the Signature Theatre, my same friend and I took in the marathon day of both parts of a revival. Tony Kushner’s play confirmed it’s place in my soul that day, with a stellar production and a talented cast that included: Christian Borle as Prior, Zachary Quinto as Louis, Billy Porter as Belize, Bill Heck as Joe, Zoe Kazan as Harper, Robin Bartlett as Hannah, Frank Wood as Roy, and Robin Weigert as the angel, directed by Michael Greif.
With the monumental HBO production, Angels in America could not be minimized or squashed, even on that small screen. It didn’t hurt that the cast was made up of super stars perfectly cast in their roles: Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, Emma Thompson, Jeffrey Wright (repeating his Tony-winning Broadway role), Justin Kirk, Ben Shenkman, Patrick Wilson, and Mary-Louise Parker. It was sublime and epic. A powerful piece of writing and a strong statement for the world to see. A statement that seems as relevant today as any time before it.
“History is about to crack wide open. Millennium Approaches.”
Angels in America Part One: Millennium Approaches
From a taping at the Lyttleton Theatre in London, Part One: Millennium Approaches is by far the most beautiful and far reaching introduction to a place and time representing the History of Gay America in the 1980’s. Magnificently directed by Marianne Elliott (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, War Horse), the opening monologue, a speech by an old Jewish rabbi, played effortlessly by Susan Brown (National Theatre’s Husbands & Sons) mysteriously tells us all we need to know. Not in terms of the old Jewish woman laying in the coffin, which he does do, but about the world and people we are about to embrace. It’s such a sly and wonderful piece of writing that sneaks into our soul, and sets us up on almost all levels for what is in store. It’s about death, love, life, but it’s also about pain, suffering, guilt, and abandonment. One thing you can say about Kushner and his writing of Part One, is that there isn’t a moment of excess or a wasted scene that could be edited out. Every word seems meaningful in this over three hour beginning.
The cast is exceptional. Andrew Garfield (Mike Nichols’ Death of a Salesman) as Prior gives us 1980’s camp artfully masking the frightened young boy beneath. James McArdle (Chichester Festival Theatre’s Platonov) as his guilt ridden boyfriend, Louis is epic in his word play, hiding quite simply behind the intellectual waterfall of words and ideas. They don’t in the end do the job in protecting him, as most beautifully pointed out by Belize, archly portrayed by the wonderful Nathan Stewart-Jarrett (National Theatre’s The History Boys) but they do distract him just enough not to see how he is engaging with the world.
Russell Tovey, who was masterful in Broadway’s The View from the Bridge, is sublime once again as the confused Morman, Joe. The battle that plays out inside his head ricochets throughout the theatre and into our hearts. Denise Gough (National Theatre’s People, Places and Things – a play I NEED to see with her in it & it’s coming to St. Ann’s Warehouse) as Joe’s tortured and torturing wife, Harper tackles maybe one of the hardest parts in this complex play and triumphs against all odds (Marcia Gay Harden and Mary Louise Parker must be giving her virtual standing ovations nightly). The scene when Harper and Prior connect for the first time is electric and emotionally engaging, making tears flow down my face before I knew what even was happening. The thin hair of connecting tissue between these two holds this piece together. The way they can see inside the other and know their pain, is what adds weight and meaning to the whole.
Amanda Lawrence and Susan Brown have the joy and the difficulty of playing numerous roles spanning from a nurse, a Mormon neighbor, a male doctor, Joe’s mother, a homeless woman, Ethel Rosenberg, to a Rabbi and an angel. Gough also has the opportunity to showcase her skills playing a smarmy male friend of Roy Cohn. All with an ease that makes it look effortless. Nathan Lane (Broadway’s The Front Page), as the closeted Roy Cohn is the biggest surprise of the evening. The comedian that has charmed us all and made us laugh in shows like The Producers has proven once again, that to be a brilliant and true comedian, one must almost also be a smart and intense actor. His Roy Cohn is as layered and fiery as one could hope for, funny but devastating, cruel but desperate for connection. It’s a magnificent performance and one I hope to witness again. He, and the others bring the humor to the front without distancing themselves from the pain and suffering that surrounds. I only hope that the rumor is true and that this production will be coming to Broadway next season. Because I’ll be there, once again, ready and willing.
The three plus hours of the first part is just the beginning. On Thursday July 27, we will be back at BAM Rose Theatres to see Part Two of Angels in America, but I must say we are left at the end of Part One majestically. For the few who don’t know I won’t spoil the epic theatricality of the descent, but it still leaves us wanting more. Does it equal the Broadway, or even the vision of Emma Thompson from the HBO version? Not really, but I must admit the predecessors were and are monumental, and pretty hard to beat.
“I want the voice, it’s wonderful. It’s all that’s keeping me alive.”
Kushner spoke often about Angels in America‘s need to be seen as artificial in a theatrical manner, with all strings and artifice showing itself. And in that stance, the National Theatre’s grand and intimate production succeeds gloriously. The set by Ian MacNeil, with expert lighting by Paule Constable and perfect costuming by Nicky Gillibrand expands and highlights all aspects of this play (choreography and movement by Robby Graham, music by Adrian Sutton, sound by Ian Dickinson). It effortlessly transitions and blends from one moment to another, emotionally and visually. The intimacy is palpable, especially in the intricate revolves. It pulls us in to the tremendously engaging story of the AIDS crisis in America, a conservative Reagan administration doing nothing to help these strange and wonderful New Yorkers who are grappling with life and death, love and sex, and most importantly of all, heaven and hell. I look forward to what is next to come. I will prepare for the arrival.
Angels in America Part Two: Perestroika
“Greetings, Prophet. The Great Work Begins. The Messenger Has Arrived.”
One of the striking things about this tale is just how epic and large Kushner’s stroke is as he paints his canvas. He opens this second half with the oldest living Russian Bolshevik (Susan Brown) giving a speech about revolution, passion, and theory. It’s captivating in its word play, but sometimes, it’s a bit difficult to see the point. In reflection though, it has deep psychological meaning about living life and moving forward. Not just for Russians, or persons with AIDS but for humanity as a whole. He spins words and ideas that are sometimes overwhelming in the moment but are never without passion and heavy meaning on the bigger canvas.
Some believe that this play, Part Two, should be edited down well beyond its plus four hour length. They say the story could and would still be told, and I agree with that point if story-telling is all we are here for. But like great works of Shakespeare and others, the piece would lose some of its magic with each subtraction of text. Ever word and utterance feels important somehow. Maybe not in the moment, but when it is all said and done, the piece carries that weight well. The canvas is brilliant to behold long after the last stroke is applied. And I wouldn’t want to lose one phrase for the sake of a few minutes here and there.
(Still) A Gay Fantasia on National Themes both Past and Present
“We won’t die secret deaths anymore. The world only spins forward. We will be citizens. The time has come.”
Maybe it doesn’t feel as true as it did when I first heard those words thirty years ago. Or where I thought this nation was heading even one year ago, but we have to believe, I guess, in the bigger picture of civilization. We need to look beyond what we are stuck with now, just like these complex characters had to do. So we shall.
We can’t stand still. We will #Resist and move forward. With all our might.
“Bye now, you are fabulous each and every one and I bless you. More life, the great work begins.”