Marianne Elliott’s blistering production of Tony Kushner’s epic two-part play, Angels in America, is the kind of event theatre that comes along only a few times in your life. It’s lengthy and heady, but it’s also a complete masterpiece of writing, acting, and directing, and it speaks to the current time in bold and all caps. From a director at the height of her powers to an unparalleled cast giving, across the board, emotionally raw, thrilling performances, there is nothing else like what is happening at the Neil Simon Theatre.
The play concerns the interconnectedness of two AIDS patients in 1985 and 1986, the height of the pandemic in New York City, and the people who love them, hate them, work with them, or encounter them in Valium-induced hallucinations. To summarize the plot more would be to bastardize the structural innovations, detailed character work, and poetic language Kushner weaves together. And, if you’re signing up for a 3000-word discussion of this play, I’m going to assume you’re at least vaguely familiar with what happens in it. [Ed: For more on the play, listen to our podcast]
Reading the play is one thing (it works brilliantly on the page), watching the HBO miniseries (it’s also fantastic) is another. The experience of seeing it live, with 1,400 of your closest friends can’t be beat. The jokes bring down the house and you could hear the tiniest of pins drop in the tensest moments. It’s a play that crackles and jolts you upright. It is, without qualms, the best play.
Elliott’s production makes great use of this monumental piece. Her most controversial choice is that this Angel does not float down from above and hover over Prior’s bed at the end of Millennium Approaches. Elliott’s Angel (Amanda Lawrence) hurtles through the ceiling, smashes into the floor, and is reassembled, with the help of several “Shadows” (unitard-clad assistants), as a corporeal, bird-like being, mangled and discomfited. This city bird is more pigeon than dove: she’s mangy with wiry, Phil Spector hair. Lawrence portrays her just off-center into the animalistic. She screeches something fierce and retches up a cough that recalls the worst furball. Prior foreshadows the Angel’s approach saying, “I feel like something terrifying is on its way, you know, like a missile from outer space, and it’s plummeting down towards the earth, and I’m ground zero.” From his speech, this Angel is hatched.
In 2018, it’s fitting that the Angel we get is not pristine and glowing. It’s Lawrence wearing a tattered American flag that looks like it’s been dragged through the mud. Lawrence makes a series of oddball choices that all end up fitting snugly into the lofty text Kushner gives her. Her head tilts at crazy angles, her eyes look like they see more than they should. Her Angel has perspective; there are significant stakes for her. She’s dealing with a reluctant Prophet who wants to reject his vision and Lawrence plays her as someone who really does not have time for this foolery. As an actor Lawrence is both other-wordly and deeply connected to her weirdo human creations. In the smaller roles she inhabits in the play, she finds a specific strangeness in each.
As the secondary character, Belize, Nathan Stewart-Jarrett uses his time on stage to great advantage. He makes Kushner’s heightened text feel like everyday language. Listen to his facility with his afterlife monologue in Perestroika. He is also, to the core, fabulous. His first entrance as Belize is scored by Adrian Sutton with the perfect amount of glitter and snaps to lead him to Prior’s doorway. Stewart-Jarrett and Andrew Garfield, as Prior, have an intense connection that makes their past as lovers and drag queens entirely believable. Their previous sexual relationship has settled into platonic love and both actors are adept at conveying this history.
The scenes that Stewart-Jarrett shares with James McArdle, as Louis, are stunning because they play off each other so well. Belize and Louis could not be more opposite and Kushner is aware of that. He uses their opposing natures to shade in their character traits. Belize and Louis have at each other on the small quibbles that have been building up between them over the years. Their conversations veer from race to democracy to the definition of real love and Belize functions as the voice that brings Louis’ ideas down to earth.
It is easy to hear Louis and go along with what he’s saying – he’s a dominant white male voice and society has conditioned us to listen to those – but Kushner puts Belize there to fight back against this tendency. In a play about the marginalized (gay men in the 1980s), Kushner places an even more dispossessed character in their midst to shift our perspective. Louis does not consider the added disadvantages that come with Belize’s race. Worse, Louis thinks of himself as having it harder than Belize because he is Jewish. Though Belize exists in the play only in response to the other (white) characters, Stewart-Jarrett fills in what blanks he can with richness.
As the only actor who did not transfer with the production from London, Lee Pace is riveting in his portrayal of Joe Pitt’s repression, sexual/emotional awakening, and consequent suffering. Pace takes Joe’s secret and physicalizes it with extremely tight body language: his elbows are tucked in close to the body, like a poker player trying not to show his hand. When he is provoked, Pace’s arms slice at the air as if Joe is pushing against chains, trying to escape from something. He is very tall and towers over the other actors, but most of the time, Pace is not domineering. He conveys Joe’s lack of confidence which makes his height irrelevant.
It’s truly terrifying, however, when he lets the anger rumble up. Pace plays Joe filled with self-loathing, disgusted with the desires he can’t control, until he decides to succumb to them – and maybe still a little bit after. Pace’s Joe uses Harper as a symbol of his internal hatred and often lashes out, patronizing and criticizing her. He hates that looking at Harper reminds him of his same-sex attraction. Pace plays Joe as the kind of right-wing establishment misogynist with whom we are all too familiar. Joe tranfers the blame for his self-shame onto his mother, Hannah, and Harper, “the enemy,” in order to absolve himself.
Yet, McArdle and Pace have extraordinary chemistry. Incrementally, Pace allows Joe to lower his guard, to look at Louis more deeply and physically inch a little closer. Their scene together on the courthouse steps in the second act of Millennium Approaches is one of the highlights of the entire seven-and-a-half hours. In Elliott’s production, their relationship is doomed from the get-go, but it’s still delicious to watch them flirt, fight, explore the sense of smell, and savagely make out.
Louis Ironson is one of the most finely wrought characters in the theatrical canon. It’s a beast of a role, and extraordinarily difficult to crack because Louis talks and talks but doesn’t express the things that are most important to understand about him. When he walks out on Prior, Louis is trying to save himself from watching someone he loves die, but in his attempt to escape, he traps himself in his own guilt. He’s tied in countless knots and, until the end of the play, doesn’t try to untie any of them, he just ties more knots on top of those that are already there.
In less skilled hands, the unlikable things about Louis could tip the scales. But McArdle’s Louis is sympathetic and funny and it becomes important for him to right his wrongs as much as possible. His body and his voice squirm together side-by-side, bouncing in a high, almost sing-songy register. It’s whiny, but it’s not obnoxious.
He is pedantic, but all his righteousness is rooted in insecurity. Louis is ashamed he has not lived up to his potential. He’s hyper-intelligent, but works as a temp word processor, “the lowest of the low.” He tells Joe that his parents are disappointed in him for being gay and for not having a career, but some of that disappointment is also self-imposed. In their final argument in Perestroika, Joe hits on this and it’s harrowing for Louis. McArdle takes it in stride, and hurls it back later, but underneath McArdle reveals that it actually stings.
Louis is thirty-two years old and lives in an apartment without furniture. The emptiness of Louis’ space is a representation of his hollow interior. Having left the man he loves to avoid watching him die, he is adrift, and McArdle channels this with such richness and detail. He listens intently to each scene partner and it feels organic when he replies, as if the words are not Kushner’s, but his own. McArdle has crafted a fully-realized character with history, internal life, and perspective. He’s funny and sexy and it is starkly clear why Prior cries for him when he realizes he’s gone in spite of the awful things Louis has done.
In devotion to verisimilitude, Elliott and McArdle, have even developed a sexual fetish for Louis. Garfield’s Prior plays with Louis’ nipple in a bit of staging early in Millennium Approaches and, many hours later, Louis asks Joe to bite his nipple on the beach. Both times this elicits a moan of pleasure from Louis. This is only one example of the kind of carefully wrought details Elliott brings out of the text.
Ian MacNeil’s scenic design is, for most of Millennium Approaches, comprised of three revolving, mutating rooms. The turntables allow the locations to become what they need to be from scene-to-scene, repurposing the space quickly and fluidly. The walls are a collection of mismatched rectangles, bedecked in a patchwork appliqué of linoleum scraps, sheet metal, painted wood, and only-MacNeil-knows-what-else. The assemblage becomes a tapestry on which the past is layered. In most New York apartment buildings, the units are old and layers of paint mark the passage of time like rings in the trunk of a tree and MacNeil depicts this in his collage-like design.
The set is lined in color-shifting neon and is the production’s main visual metaphor. The neon is subtle, but unsettling as it lies dormant in tones of silver-blue atop the turntable walls. But when the first moment of Angelic magic occurs, it surges into a brilliant pink and encircles Prior. Ian Dickinson’s soundscape begins to buzz with electricity – the hum of the neon. Every time the Angel arrives, this sound fills the theatre and the colors shift. The neon becomes a symbol of the divine magic lurking at the edges of everyday existence.
As the play moves away from reality near the end of Millennium Approaches and reaches further into the fantastical in Perestroika, the three-walled realism dissolves. The turntables spin themselves into the background and eventually disappear completely, leaving only a cavernous black void in which the rest of the play takes place.
In this new terrain, furniture and set pieces are maneuvered into place via the crawling creature-like Shadows that manipulate the Angel or are lifted from the depths below the stage mechanically. Anything can appear from anywhere at any time; there is no way to expect or anticipate where it will emerge or how something will manifest. It’s magical, but also, as it concerns the Shadows, it’s rooted in the earthy and homespun like black-clad stagehands or Japanese kuroko.
In Elliott’s production, the Fantastical equals the Theatrical, in the Brechtian sense where the stagecraft is exposed. An elegant snowfall blankets the full length of the stage, creating a believable sensorial atmosphere. There is rain, but it only occurs in one small section downstage right and, crucially, the machinery that creates the rain is visible, flown in directly above the actors. This distancing effect aligns the Angel’s magic with the magic of the theatre.
The women in Kushner’s play do not fall into the common “gay play” misogynist trap. They are not archetypes. They do not serve as reflections of the gay men. They are not there to facilitate a hero’s journey. They have their own hills to climb: Hannah leaves Salt Lake City behind (and, by association, her past) and, by the epilogue, becomes a true New Yorker. Harper learns not to devalue herself just because her husband does and sets out on a cross-country flight. Both Pitt women are written with as much nuance as the male characters and Brown and Denise Gough enliven the words with detailed characterizations.
As Joe’s mother, Susan Brown constructs Hannah’s rigid outer shell out of defensiveness and hard-fought life lessons. But Brown exposes moments of Hannah’s compassion seeping through. Hannah rushes to New York after Joe comes out to her, but is she coming for Joe or for Harper? In Brown’s interpretation, it’s not so black and white. She reveals to Prior that she finds men distasteful in all respects and, after Joe abandons Harper, Hannah steps in to take care of her. Hannah challenges the common portrayal of maternal instincts as warm and open by being cold and scary and also maternal. She does not fit into the prescribed motherly box on anyone’s terms but her own.
Gough made her U.S. stage debut at St. Ann’s Warehouse last fall and immediately blew New York’s collective mind. It was a high octane, exhausting performance and Gough brings that same full-body engagement to Harper. Watch as Joe’s words leave his mouth, become physical beings, and smack into her body. Watch her take out her frustration on a bag of Doritos. Watch her shiver in the rain as it washes her old life away. Gough does not play Harper as emotionally anesthetized by Valium, the drug causes her to be more emotionally alert.
When Gough’s Harper is able to connect with Andrew Garfield’s Prior, it’s joyous. Harper enjoys talking to Prior because he’s the only person in her life who actually listens to her. He thinks what she has to say is valuable and there is mutual respect, something she doesn’t get anywhere else. Their common ground is one of the more pleasurable aspects of Kushner’s play in the hands of these two actors
Andrew Garfield and Nathan Lane share top billing and both performances are titanic. Garfield has created a character that is distinctly non-masculine, an honest portrait of a gay person with all the ensuing drama and enthusiasm. It’s not a safe, respectful, from-a-distance performance. It’s excavated from Kushner’s text. As gay men adopt the drag persona of heterosexual women, so here has Garfield, a straight man, adopted the drag persona of a homosexual man. It is not winking and it’s never untruthful. Garfield drips snot, sweats, cries, and spits his way through the play. He has pitched himself entirely into Prior.
Lane is an incomparable talent and, in recent years, has proven that he is willing to, and can, do anything. The stretch of clown roles on his resume has prepared him to play Roy Cohn by giving him the skills to funnel his natural charm and immediate likability into someone who is purely evil. The villain of Angels in America is AIDS, not Roy Cohn. Roy Cohn is the monster in the characters’ real lives. Lane’s Roy is a smooth-talker until he’s not. He erupts like Vesuvius and the people around him are Pompeii; there’s just decimation.
Alone in his hospital (death) bed, Roy delivers a speech about the acceptance of illness in this country: “The worst thing about being sick in America, Ethel, is you are booted out of the parade. Americans have no use for sick… It’s just no country for the infirm.” I was struck by how this speech, written over twenty-five years ago, applies to our current healthcare debate. One of the many remarkable things about the play is that it remains palpably current. Roy’s vicious diatribes sound like missives from the Oval Office. We are, thankfully, out of the thick of the AIDS pandemic, but Kushner’s play is about more than illness. It’s about needing more life, be that refusing to succumb or making a drastic change or refocusing the trajectory. In Elliott’s production, the characters are all scrambling to live more. Prior is the center of the play, but the acting is so strong across the board and Elliott’s staging has such equality that each story is as important and as enthralling as the next.
Near the end of Millennium Approaches, there is a fantasy sequence resplendent with a mirror ball, “Moon River” on the soundtrack, and a gentle fog that drifts a spectral Louis in to dance with Prior. At first glance, it’s moving because Prior is lonely and his lost love returns, dashing and tuxedo-clad, to whirl him around the dance floor. Looking closer, though, it’s more than that: as Prior gets out of bed, he’s no longer sick. His limp disappears. In the dream, he is healthy and in love. The syndrome has not claimed him and life is still filled with possibility. The world doesn’t spin backwards, though, and the actual lives lost to AIDS – still a very real threat – cannot be restored. We can only have our hearts filled up by this incredible production, and remember, and look forward.