Eight hours long, shown in two parts on different days, the National Theatre production of Tony Kushner’s multi-award-winning play “Angels in America” is one of the most extraordinary theatrical experiences I’ve ever had.
Brilliantly directed and staged by Marianne Elliott, the play manages to be thrilling and moving, challenging and funny, surreal and realistic, all at the same time. First produced in the midst of the AIDS crisis, at a time when many gay people were hidden deep in the closet, the play feels as contemporary today as it did in the early 1990s, even though the disease is now managed reliably and gay people find widespread acceptance in culture and society. Kushner’s amalgam of politics, religion, psychology, sex, and American history still provokes and reveals and probes issues that continue to confound us.
The play also provides great, juicy roles for actors, and this production boasts a ton of them. Andrew Garfield as Prior, Nathan Lane as Roy Cohn, Lee Pace as Joe, Denise Gough as Harper, James McArdle as Louis — all are marvelous. Nine actors play many parts; they must be in great physical shape to get through the three-hour-plus performances.
Commissioned by the Eureka Theater in San Francisco, the play first was performed in 1990 as a workshop in Los Angeles at the Mark Taper Forum. The first (and stronger) part, “Millennium Approaches,” premiered in San Francisco, then went to London in 1992. That was before Kushner had completed the second part, “Perestroika.” The entire two-part play came to Broadway in 1993. It won the Tony and Drama Desk awards for best play in 1993 and 1994 respectively. The revival now at the Neil Simon Theatre comes from the West End, with much of the original British and American cast.
“Angels in America” roughly follows the intersection of two couples from October 1985 through January 1986, with an epilogue set in 1990. Uber WASP and former drag queen Prior Walter and his boyfriend, the leftist Jew Louis Ironson, are struggling to deal with Prior’s diagnosis of full-blown AIDS. Meanwhile, Mormon lawyer Joe Pitt is having trouble with his neurotic wife, Harper. She hides in their Brooklyn apartment, popping Valium, while he cozies up to his mentor Roy Cohn, the notorious anti-Communist and secret homosexual. Cohn is the linchpin in these relationships and inspires some of Kushner’s most outraged, outrageous, and hilarious dialogue. He is a volcanic presence on stage, and Nathan Lane captures that irresistible charisma. For anyone who saw the HBO miniseries starring Al Pacino as Cohn, it’s hard to forget Pacino’s intense submersion into the character, but Lane’s powerful stage presence makes it impossible to look away.
Unable to cope with Prior’s worsening health, Louis leaves him, and soon initiates a romance with Joe, who is just beginning to acknowledge his homosexuality. Desperately unhappy, Harper starts to wander, perhaps metaphorically, to distant continents and locations, where she runs into Prior, also wandering far from his hospital bed. Sick with AIDS, Roy Cohn hallucinates visits from Ethel Rosenberg, the woman he prosecuted for espionage and ultimately had executed. As Prior experiences surreal visions, he hears an otherworldly voice telling him that he is a prophet, and he is warned to expect a visitation. Spiritual beings invade the world.
Widely considered one of the best American plays of the second half of the twentieth century, “Angels in America” is a great Jewish play as well. It opens with an Orthodox rabbi conducting the funeral of Louis Ironson’s immigrant grandmother and includes the recital of the kaddish, the prayer for the dead, over the body of Roy Cohn near the play’s end. In between, we hear all the arguments about socialism that once convulsed the Jewish world, as well as a deep exploration of Jewish American identity. References to the Torah pepper the play, with Prior actually wrestling an angel and incurring an injury to his leg. Religion, both Judaism and variants of Christianity, is central to the action, and true faith is taken seriously. The religious beliefs of Joe, Harper, and Joe’s mother, Hannah, provide both strength and torment, and both Louis’s socialism and Cohn’s anti-Communism feel like religions, in that they inform their beliefs and guide their behaviors. The drama of celestial beings evokes awe, as it does in religious communities everywhere.
“Angels in America” is a great play, and this production at the Neil Simon Theatre is an unforgettable theater experience.