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Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes

Directed by wunderkind Marianne Elliott, Tony Kushner’s two-part epic continues to create a universe of its own, that tells its story with conviction and truth.

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Nathan Lane as Roy M. Cohn and Nathan Stewart-Jarrett as Belize in a scene from Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America” (Photo credit: Brinkhoff & Mögenburg)

David Kaufman

David Kaufman, Critic

Full disclosure from the top: I was one of the few critics who did not particularly admire the original, 1993 Broadway production of Angels in America. But if the two-part play by Tony Kushner were a religion–which it immediately became–I’m now a convert, thanks to the new National Theatre production from London, which has just opened on Broadway for a limited run.

It’s been directed by wunderkind Marianne Elliott, who also directed the other recent phenomenal British imports, War Horse and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night. And with her customarily stunning, visual effects, it continues to create a universe of its own, that tells its story with conviction and truth. What could more perfectly serve playwright Kushner’s intentions, even as ambitious as those intentions are?

There are several other reasons that this production works better than the original as well, the primary one being that in 1993, Part One of Angels, subtitled Millennium Approaches, opened in April, and we all had to wait until November to see Part Two, subtitled Perestroika. Now, both parts of the play can be seen in one day or on two consecutive nights. I chose the former way to see it, when a good number of colleagues were also in attendance, and every one of them to a person also felt it worked better than the original.

James McArdle as Louis Ironson and Lee Pace as Joseph Pitt in a scene from Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America” (Photo credit: Brinkhoff & Mögenburg)

And then there are the performers. The towering Nathan Lane is playing the towering and oily and evil Roy Cohn, whose character, more than any other, makes the play relevant to today, since Cohn was Donald Trump’s principal mentor. (“Sue somebody,” says Cohn. “It’s good for the soul.”) Angels even includes the notoriously famous remark before Congress, “Have you no sense of decency,” which links Cohn to Joseph McCarthy and the “Red” Communist scare of the early 1950’s. But Angels is really about when it’s set–in the mid 1980’s, during the Reagan era, when AIDS was ripe and rife–“in the melting pot where nothing melted,” to quote the Rabbi who opens the play. But it’s also universal, and speaks as much to today as it did when it premiered. Consider the homeless woman, who says, “In the new century I think we will all be insane.”

Far more than Ron Liebman, who portrayed Cohn in the 1993 productions, Lane depicts Cohn’s deterioration from AIDS with a realism that is both tragic and gripping. Riveting, too, is Denise Gough, as the pill-popping, hallucinating Harper Pitt, whose Mormon husband Joseph (Lee Pace joining the mostly British cast) is a closeted homosexual, who eventually comes to act on his desires. (Gough won London’s Olivier Award last year for her equally outstanding portrayal of an addict in People, Places, and Things.) And how to describe Susan Brown, who plays at least five different characters, of both genders, each with distinction?

While there are so many other actors on stage during the nearly eight-hour work–seemingly each of whom play various characters (Angels is nothing, if not extensive and expansive)–the two other leads also surpass the originals: Andrew Garfield as a fierce Prior Walter (who, looking in the mirror, says to himself, “Oh my queen; you know you’ve hit rock-bottom when even drag is a drag”), and James McArdle as the indecisive and guilty Louis, who says, “what AIDS shows us is the limits of tolerance.” Honorable mention also must be made of Nathan Stewart-Jarrett as the swishy nurse Belize. (“I am a health professional. I know what I’m doing.”)

Beth Malone as The Angel (alternate) and Andrew Garfield as Prior Walter in a scene from Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America” (Photo credit: Brinkhoff & Mögenburg)

Though Elliott’s direction is never less than brilliant, she has a tour de force moment in the pivotal scene where Louis is leaving Prior and Harper and Joseph are splitting up: she literally has the characters stepping into each other’s space–as Harper crosses into Prior’s room and Louis goes into Harper’s–illuminating the comparisons that Kushner intended.

The lighting by Paule Constable frequently frames the players with shadow projections of themselves, which is highly appropriate for a play that’s about ghosts and phantoms and characters that have imaginary interactions (“hallucinations”) with other characters. The loud, crashing music at the beginnings and ends of the many acts is by Adrian Sutton, and the versatile and constantly changing scenic design is by Ian MacNeil. Nicky Gillibrand designed the costumes for the many characters as well as the Angels Shadows.

Though there’s nothing really grand about this British version of Angels in America, it’s a magisterial production in every sense, which makes the play as magisterial as its reputation suggests it always was. 

Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes (extended through July 15, 2018)

The National Theatre production

Neil Simon Theatre, 250 West 52nd Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, call 877-250-2929 or visit http://www.angelsbroadway.com

Running time:

Angels in America: Millennium Approaches (Part One) –  three hours and 35 minutes including two  intermissions

Angels in America: Perestroika (Part Two) – three hours and 55  minutes with  two intermissions

Share your thoughts in the comment section below.

David Kaufman
About David Kaufman (83 Articles)
David Kaufman has been covering the theater in New York since 1981. A former theater critic for the New York Daily News, he was also a long-time contributor to the Nation, Vanity Fair, the Village Voice and the New York Times. He is also the author of the award-winning Ridiculous! The Theatrical Life and Times of Charles Ludlam, the best-selling Doris Day: The Untold Story of the Girl Next Door, and his most recent biography, Some Enchanted Evenings: The Glittering Life and Times of Mary Martin.

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