THEATER REVIEW : ‘Angels’ on Broadway: Good Trip From L.A. : Tony Kushner’s Play Lives Up to the Hype


The angel has landed, at long last. In the final moment of “Angels in America,” she and her big fluffy wings came crashing through the ceiling into the bedroom of a dying man with AIDS. “Greetings, prophet!” she proclaimed to the shocked, emaciated figure on the bed. “The great work begins!”

Actually, it had begun three-and-a-half hours earlier.

Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer Prize-winning gay epic, which opened at the Walter Kerr last night after probably the longest foreplay in Broadway history, is a fierce and wonderful play--uncompromising and compassionate, unflinchingly partisan and intensely well-informed, as intimate and entertaining as it is monumental and spiritual.


But first, a correction: It’s important to note that this is only half a fierce and wonderful play. The second half, subtitled “Perestroika,” is being reworked and won’t open until the fall, when the two massive chunks will be available in repertory to tear us apart and, we hope, put us back together. This first part, “Millennium Approaches,” is engrossing and devastating by itself, but leaves basic relationships unresolved, motives undefined, questions tantalizingly unanswered.


Thus, in addition to all the other new and dangerous provocations this fearless work brings to safe old Broadway, we now have a cliffhanger that will leave us dangling for months. With a lesser work, nobody would remember. With this one, we cannot forget.

As careful readers may have guessed by now, “Angels in America, A Gay Fantasia on National Themes: Millennium Approaches,” has not been crushed by the hype and acclaim that tailed it from London to the Los Angeles production at the Mark Taper Forum last November. It is a pleasure to report that those two words-- eagerly anticipated --which had begun to seem permanently grafted on a title that didn’t need any extra weight, did not oversell it.

It’s also a relief to see that director George C. Wolfe, hired after the Taper opening to fix the Oskar Eustis production that many of us didn’t think was broken, got it right. Ron Leibman’s justly acclaimed Roy Cohn is still staggering proof of the seductive appeal of nonstop evil. Stephen Spinella and Joe Mantello still take your breath away as Prior Walter, the flamboyant AIDS-wracked WASP, and Louis, the liberal Angst -wracked Jewish lover who abandons him.

Wolfe has made three cast changes--one even exchange (Jeffrey Wright as the gay nurse/former drag queen Belize) and two improvements (Marcia Gay Harden and David Marshall Grant as the troubled young Mormon couple). Wolfe re-blocked the 30-odd scenes to fit the sleek new Robin Wagner scenery, fine-tuned the already harrowing performances for a bit more warmth and away from some of the easier laughs. He also left enough of the L.A. production alone that the omission of any mention of Eustis in the credits seems impolite, if not unjust.

And justice is very much on Kushner’s mind, both as indictment of the Republican years and atonement for our moral unraveling before the apocalypse. Set in 1985, smack into Reagan/Bush and 15 years before the Big 2000, “Angels” uses gay life and AIDS as the eye of a storm that has all the raw destruction and promise of an end-of-the-century myth.

Kushner uses a huge canvas, but a very delicate brush. This is a play of big ideas--politics, religion, love, responsibility and the struggle between staying put and our need to move, preferably forward. Kushner likes to drop everyday people into hallucinations, fever dreams, and stage magic that looks homemade and awesome at the same time. Kushner likes to name names--Joe McCarthy, the Reagan kids, Jeanne Kirkpatrick--and he likes characters who have opinions on everything, from American racism to the hole in the ozone, from Ed Meese to medieval history.


And, yet, this heretofore almost unknown playwright is such a delightful, luscious, funny writer that, for all the political rage and the scathing unsanitized horror, the hours zip by with the breezy enjoyment of a great page-turner or a popcorn movie.


Eight actors play 20 characters, who, despite the scope of the discourse, never come together in groups larger than duets or the occasional trio. Every so often, two different couples play out their scenes as if in split-screen cinema, and sometimes one character’s drug trip intersects with someone else’s dementia.

We start with a solo in the Bronx, an old rabbi delivering a eulogy over the casket of an old immigrant he didn’t know, musing on the ancient culture she brought on her back, about the “great voyage” we cross every day because of her and her dying breed, in the “melting pot where nothing melted.” It’s a beautiful, sardonic monologue, which sets the stage for the broad vision, the sense of loss and the sense of humor to follow.

From there, we meet the rest--friends, lovers, but mostly unlike types whose lives overlap and intersect in surprising but eerily logical ways. There is Harper, the depressed agoraphobic Mormon wife with a Valium addiction, and Joe, her straight-arrow Republican lawyer husband, trying to deny his homosexuality.

There’s Louis, an over-educated word processor at Joe’s circuit court, who worries some of Kushner’s most passionate and hilarious moral dilemmas into the ground, but cannot endure the “vomit and sores and disease” that challenge our American belief in the constant historical progress toward happiness. Faced with Prior’s purple spots and diarrhea, Louis bolts.

And then there is Cohn, the omnivorous right-wing powerbroker and closet gay, trying to recruit young idealistic Joe to fix the disbarment case against him--and denying he has AIDS because “homosexuals are people with zero clout.” Leibman, in the bravura role of his career, starts out in a cadenza, working the phones in multiple conversations, and, just when you think Leibman is so over-the-top he’ll turn into Jerry Lewis, he finds even darker corners.

Grant has just the right combination of boyishness and rigidity as the struggling Joe; Harden does wonders with the clingy, mad-housewife role that seemed impossibly irritating in L.A., though even Harden can’t make those imaginary trips with Mr. Lies, her fantasy travel agent, work. Kathleen Chalfant is so perfect as Joe’s Mormon mother and as the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg that we forgive her weak rabbi and physician, and Wright is a lovely combination of endearment and no-nonsense as Belize.


Spinella is unforgettable as the ravaged but still ironic Prior, so long-boned and thin we feel we could fold him up and slide him under the door. Mantello gets the best speeches and has to do the most hateful things, all with lovable charm. Ellen McLaughlin’s angel is suitably angelic in one of Toni-Leslie James’ graceful costumes, and Wagner’s sets, with its computerized moving panels, keeps things simple without shortchanging the special effects.

There were some boos at the end of the preview I attended, and we can only guess why. Maybe the mainstream Broadway audience was shocked, maybe somebody was related to Jeanne Kirkpatrick, maybe somebody yearned for Cohn’s deferred dream of a Republican presidency and Supreme Court forever.

Or, maybe, someone just didn’t want to have to wait until fall to find out how this important story ends. This, we understand.