Andrew Garfield (foreground) in ‘Angels in America: Perestroika.’ (Photo: Brinkhoff/Mögenburg)
By Matthew Wexler
There is theater. Then there is Angels in America.
Tony Kushner’s seminal work, subtitled “A Gay Fantasia on National Themes,” premiered on Broadway in 1993-94 playing in two parts: Millennium Approaches and Perestroika. Each won the Tony Award for Best New Play, while Millennium Approaches also snagged the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Returning to Broadway for the first time in 25 years, the plays are as bristling, dynamic and relevant as when they first appeared. And while they are intended to stand alone as dramatic works, it would be remiss of me to suggest anything other than buckling down for the full seven-and-a-half hour theatrical firestorm. The ensemble doesn’t even take a curtain call at the end of Part I, as if to say, “you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.”
Weaving together a retrospective on religion, the AIDS crisis, political corruption, drug addiction and race, Kushner’s heightened language wallops throughout, whether it be sweeping Dickensian passages that seem to have little restraint, or one-liners such as “Americans have no use for sick. It’s just no country for the infirm,” which concisely sums up our collective lack of empathy in today’s political landscape. If you are willing to give yourself over to its characters’ desperate search for inner truth, you will be rewarded with a theatrical experience that will both devastate and exhilarate you.
1.2 Million and Counting
As not to diminish its broad-reaching themes, I do not consider Angels in America to be solely an AIDS play, though it does use the early days of the AIDS crisis in the U.S. as a framework for exploring how we, as a nation, and also as individuals, face illness. Millennium Approaches begins in December1985 as Prior Walter (Andrew Garfield) discovers he has AIDS (the term HIV wasn’t coined until the following year). His neurotic live-in boyfriend Louis (James McArdle) sticks around long enough to witness hallucinations, night sweats and bloody stool before abandoning him in a fit of self-righteousness.
Garfield, known to Marvel fans as Peter Parker in 2012’s The Amazing Spider-Man and its 2014 sequel, is divinely acerbic and witty, portraying Prior as an explorer in a new frontier of disease and dementia. His journey is a fantastical one that leaps dimensions, thrusting him into an extended encounter with an Angel (Amanda Lawrence), brilliantly costumed as a ragged bald eagle in a tattered American flag and moving in darting, choreographed patterns with the assistance of angel shadows who catapult her about the stage.
Prior’s vivid dreams recollect family ancestors and also land him in the same ethereal world as Harper Pitt (Denise Gough), a valium-popping Mormon housewife facing the truth about her husband, Joe’s (Lee Pace), repressed homosexuality. Garfield’s Prior is a man of biting truth, witty humor, and utter exasperation. At times, sharply defined, and at others, unhinged from the gut. Kushner avoids writing the character as an AIDS Everyman, instead allowing Prior to stumble, fall, and eventually soar in his fractured survival.
The face of AIDS has evolved dramatically since Millennium Approaches’ 1985 starting point. The controversial medication AZT (zidovudine) appears as a lifeline in Perestroika (one that is hoarded by a fictional interpretation of the lawyer Roy Cohn, but we’ll get to that shortly), while protease inhibitors had yet to be discovered.
But Angels in America is far from a museum piece. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 1.2 million people in the U.S. have received an AIDS diagnosis since recordkeeping began in the early 80s. But the Prior Walter of 2018 is likely Black or Hispanic—two ethnic groups that cumulatively comprised 69 percent of HIV diagnoses in 2016. The battle is far from over.
Make America Not So Great Again
Roy Cohn (Nathan Lane) plays a pivotal role in Kushner’s work as a historical anchor for the period’s political corruption and shifting tides regarding LGBTQ awareness and acceptance. The playwright acknowledges that the character is a work of dramatic fiction with elements grounded in reality, such as Cohn’s illegal involvement in the McCarthy-era trial of Ethel Rosenberg (Susan Brown) who brilliantly appears to haunt his bedside during his final days as he, too, succumbs to AIDS.
The New York Times obituary for the real Roy Cohn described him as a man who “never lost his enormous energy, his fiery intensity, [and] his quick, dagger-like wit.” Such is the fuel of Lane’s throw-down-the-gauntlet performance. Lane’s impeccable comic timing, seen on Broadway over the past three decades in Tony Award-winning performances such as The Producers, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, and Guys and Dolls occasionally softens Roy Cohn to the point where he’s nearly likable. But Cohn’s venom runs deep, and when unleashed, will cut your breath short.
Cohn’s relationship with Joe, a chief clerk for a judge in the Federal Court of Appeals, is one of mentorship and obsession. He also comes face to face with Belize (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett), Prior’s best friend who works as a nurse at St. Vincent. Belize finds himself forced to care for Cohn who has little interest in using his resources to advocate for AIDS research and treatment beyond his own wellbeing. These throwdowns, as Belize deftly negotiates access to Cohn’s illegal stash of AZT for his own dying friend and others, embody both party’s desperation and fortitude to survive.
It’s not so difficult to see similarities between Cohn and today’s political landscape. We are living in polarized times and I can imagine the field day Cohn would have on Twitter, not unlike our current president’s quick-to-cut vitriol. Cohn and the Trump dynasty had an intertwined relationship—you might wonder to what degree what’s old is new again.
Drugs, Religion & Unspoken Truths
Harper, who has followed her husband from the Mormon hotbed of Salt Lake City to the east coast, is a woman on the precipice of acknowledging her own truth. Suspecting that Joe might be a homosexual, she represses her instincts through a steady supply of Valium, yet her lucidity manages to simmer just below the surface. Gough, who wowed New York audiences last year at St. Ann’s Warehouse in the National Theatre’s production of People, Places & Things, is back in her element, portraying Harper’s shattered exterior while not losing sight of the character’s whip-smart underpinnings.
Swap out “opioid” for “Valium” and Harper could catapult from 1986 to present day. According to a recent article for The American Society of Regional Anesthesia and Pain Medicine, the United States (which represents five percent of the world’s population) consumes 80 percent of the world’s opioids. We continue to excel as a nation of addicts. Is it because we don’t value mental health care? Or because of rigid ideas about religion (swap Evangelical for Mormon)? Maybe it is the great divide between “us versus them.”
What’s Old Is New
Louis, who works as a word processor in the same circuit court as Joe, befriends him and eventually begins a rebound affair after leaving Prior. The short-lived romance boils over when Belize encourages Louis to dig a bit deeper into Joe’s legal track record, which proves that he’s been ghostwriting some controversial opinions, including a loophole regarding the Army’s dishonorable discharge of an officer because he identified as gay. Look at the headlines and the White House’s recent announcement to ban most transgender people from serving in the military as a searing reminder of the 14th Amendment’s fragility.
McArdle attacks Louis’s wit and neurosis with dexterity. In spite of his intellectual rants, Louis is paralyzed by his own fears of intimacy and mortality. He is a conflicting combination of the “fight-or-flight” response, able to use his words to stay in the ring but down for the count when it comes to esteemable action.
After nearly eight hours, Angels in America softly walks into the abyss on a cold winter’s day in Central Park as Prior and his family of choice stand at the foot of Bethesda Fountain and its angel statue that reaches toward the sky. It is a moment of empowerment, perhaps fueled by the AIDS crisis, which has taken far too many and far too soon, but also a testament to where we stand today: at the precipice of self-destruction or a soaring re-invention of one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.
As Mr. Kushner writes…
The Great Work Begins.
Angels in America
Neil Simon Theatre
250 West 52nd Street, NYC
Matthew Wexler is The Broadway Blog’s editor. Read more of his work at wexlerwrites.com.