When last we saw our friends from "Angels in America"--and they do feel like intimate friends by now--a big fluffy angel had crashed through the bedroom ceiling of the man dying of AIDS. "Greetings, prophet!" she declared to the horrified, wasted figure on the bed. "The great work begins!"
Lest anyone fear that Tony Kushner has lost his sense of proportion in the six months since the first half of his monumentally celebrated epic opened to distracting approval on Broadway, you should know right off what the suffering man now says to the angel. "SHOO!" is what he says, flinging his long skinny fingers at her fearsome winged holiness. He says, adorably, "Shoo!"
So Part II, "Perestroika," finally opened at the Walter Kerr on Tuesday after the longest cliffhanger in Broadway history, not to mention an autumn of unfortunately public previews, cancellations and false-starts. Like the Pulitzer Prize-winning first half, "Millennium Approaches," this one runs 3 1/2 hours, and again, it breezes by like no time at all.
Like the first part, it is playful and profound, extravagantly theatrical and deeply spiritual, witty and compassionate, furious and incredibly smart. It's impossible to imagine anyone captivated by the beginning not wanting-- needing --to go back for the end.
And, yet, it is equally likely that most will not find it as satisfying. Kushner has been trying to get "Perestroika" right since 1990 and, though the version directed by George C. Wolfe is far less confused than the one at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles last November, it does have some pretty major clunkers.
Kushner has given himself the largest possible task--reorganizing the philosophical design of the world in the chaos brought by Reagan-era amorality, the death of Soviet communism, AIDS and, perhaps, the incipient apocalypse. So he gets opaque or pedestrian when he stretches furthest into the theoretical. We forgive him for not being able to solve the problems of the Earth and heaven in a play, or even two plays. We're also crazy about him for trying.
This is not to say we're not still let down by the ending, which, after hours of staggeringly clear-eyed insight and cosmic promise, ties a pretty bow around it all in an epilogue more worthy of Tiny Tim at Christmas than Kushner at the end of the world. But it's a tribute to Kushner, Wolfe and their wonderful actors that any end would leave us missing the prospect of these people and their stories in our lives again.
Kushner begins exactly where he left off, with the angel in Prior Walter's room. But, first, we're somewhere in the former Soviet Union with the oldest living Bolshevik. Unlike the old rabbi who began "Millennium" by mourning the immigrants brave enough to come to an unknown land, this old man is warning against change--against rejecting the ideas of communism--without having a replacement theory. He evokes the evening's first of many images of social structure as skin, declaring, "If you don't have any skin, we cannot, we must not, move ahead."
Moving ahead, moving at all, is on Kushner's mind in "Angels," though he doesn't come out with it much until "Perestroika"--which, you may remember, means rebuilding--and it may not be all that clear by the end. The addled angel herself (played with beautiful aerial somersaults and a demented little cough by Ellen McLaughlin) is saddled with the Big Speeches about movement and stasis, and they are fairly impenetrable.
She has come to Prior Walter (the magnificent Stephen Spinella) to urge mankind to stop moving. It seems God has fallen in love with his human creation and abandoned the angels. Meanwhile, Louis (played with ever-more Angst -ridden desperation by the irresistible Joe Mantello) has abandoned his sick lover Prior, and Joe, the closeted-gay Mormon Republican lawyer (David Marshall Grant, on the exquisite line between hypocrite and victim) has left his depressed, Valium-hallucinating wife, Harper (Marcia Gay Harden, even more impressive than before as a woman who could be really annoying).
Roy Cohn (Ron Leibman, ever-deepening his portrait of the seduction of evil) is dying of AIDS. Although we miss the scene from the L.A. production in which he returns for the lawsuit between God and the angels, his death inspires Kushner to one of the most haunting among the many haunting scenes--Ethel Rosenberg channeling the Kaddish through Louis as he steals Roy's AZT. Kathleen Chalfant is actually perfect as Joe's Mormon mother. Jeffrey Wright, too, has gotten even better as Belize, the black, gay nurse.
Although some of the messages could be reduced to billboard slogans here--"we're all connected," "choose life"--Kushner wants us to know that people don't just die from AIDS, they also live with it.
While the first part of "Angels" can stand alone as a formidable piece of theater, the second is definitely dependent on the other. In a perfect world, the whole thing would have been ready to stage at the same time.
Of course, Kushner is not writing about a perfect world. If he were, we would not need him so much.